Google changes its terms and conditions to stop Android fragmentation

by: Gary SimsNovember 16, 2012

Google has changed the terms and conditions for the Android Software Development Kit to include a clause about Android fragmentation. The new clause is probably a response to the collaboration between Acer and Alibaba to form a new mobile operating system derived from Android called Aliyun.

Although Android itself is released as open source the SDK isn’t. Under the SDK’s license Google owns all the legal and intellectual property rights and it licenses developers to use the SDK solely to develop applications that run on the Android platform.

In September Acer and Alibaba’s cloud computing unit planned to launch a new smartphone which used the Android based Aliyun OS. However, according to Alibaba, Acer were told in no uncertain terms by Google that if it went ahead with the launch then Google would terminate all Android product cooperation and related technical authorization.

Section 3.4 of the updated SDK terms says, “You agree that you will not take any actions that may cause or result in the fragmentation of Android, including but not limited to distributing, participating in the creation of, or promoting in any way a software development kit derived from the SDK.”

The key phrase here is “the fragmentation of Android” which of course isn’t a legal term and could be deemed to mean almost anything that Google doesn’t like.  The clause also seems a bit superfluous as Section 3.3 says that developers are not allowed to “modify, adapt, redistribute, decompile, reverse engineer, disassemble, or create derivative works of the SDK.” It also says that developers may not “combine any part of the SDK with other software.”

There are two possible ways to look at this new clause. One is to hail Google as the great guardian of Android who is using its benevolent might to bring peace, order and unity to the Android cosmos. The other way is to remind Google that it got large chunks of Android for free from the open source community (including Linux), that it uses Java and Java APIs which it didn’t invent and that the reason Apple started taking everyone to court was because it didn’t like others (allegedly) building on its work. Something Google is now crying about with Android.

Let’s look at option one. Obviously a fragmented Android eco-sphere is bad for consumers. Having almost Android like phones where some apps work, some apps don’t work and some apps work if they have been tweaked, is bad news for consumers and developers. So any efforts by Google to keep Android together is laudable. Although Amazon’s Kindle Fire range of tablets doesn’t run stock Android (especially with regards to its user interface), to develop for the Kindle Fire you basically use Google’s SDK and create an Android app. The app will work on any compatible Android device. This is how Amazon stays within the usage term stating that the SDK can only be used to “develop applications to run on the Android platform.”

But since Android is open source, Google can’t stop anyone from developing modified or derived versions of it. Android is itself a derived version of Linux. And nobody in the Linux community moaned that Google was fragmenting Linux. So anyone and everyone is within their rights to take the Android code and make their own version  That is what Cyanogenmod do. But of course Cyanogenmod is 100% compatible with Android.

What if someone took the Android source code and made a version that was only 95% compatible where some of the system calls where changed to behave differently or new calls were added that only derived version supported. Again they can do that. But to develop apps for that new derived version, developers need an SDK. And this is why Google has modified its terms.

Looking at option two, this means that Google is trying to force a closed source mentality on a open source project and what it has done certainly isn’t within the general spirit of open source software. But it is fully entitled to do it as the SDK isn’t open source. Google got large chunks of Android for free, but it did make the SDK itself. So now if someone wants to make an Android based OS that isn’t 100% compatible they will need to build their own SDK.

What do you think? Is Google being selfish? Is it protecting Android? Is it being evil?

  • Peterson Silva

    Well, this just goes on to show there’s no such thing as “evil” in the first place. They’re doing what they see is desirable, and there’s good to it as much as there’s bad to it.

    • There is, and this is not it. This article is a little misleading. It’s explained at the end but you’re still lead to feel like Google is locking down Android. They are only locking down their SDK. Basically, all they are saying is if you want to make your own fork, you’ll have to make your own development kit. I’d say that’s fair.

      • Peterson Silva

        “if you want to make your own fork, you’ll have to make your own development kit”.

        Yeah, that is fair. But it is also locking down Android in a way. Not completely locking it down, just making it harder for it to be forked. Don’t get me wrong: I like the idea =)

    • Eric Davis

      There’s evil just not here

  • What? The statement talks specifically about the SDK, not about Android as a platform or the source code within.

    You can take the Android source code and develop a new development kit, you can take Android source code and create a new OS version, you also can take the Android source code and do a fork (which is what Amazon does) or subscribe to the AOSP/manufacturers repositories and modify the code (which is what Cyaongenmod community does).

    What you can not do is take the Development tools provided by Google and modify them as you wish. Anyway, I believe there’s some repositories with the SDK source code to compile and go, and (again) I believe that is possible use this code to create your own SDK, but I don’t believe you could use this new SDK to publish in Google Play.

    Anyway, I don’t know what would happen with Mono, Corona SDK and others.

  • Vyrlokar

    Again, the SDK isn’t open source, so Google can pull this out. Now, nothing forbids someone taking gcc and making it output dalvik binaries, and release their modifications under a GNU compatible license.

    • Eric Davis

      It is a lot different when humans are involved

  • I’m happy with the effort by Google to cut down on fragmentation across the Android platform. However, this was expected. Nearly all major software, firmware, and hardware companies like to build upon others’ ideas. Once that idea reaches a comfortable and successful build, the company claims the idea as their own. I have nothing against this mentality. Using the world as a large open source data bank to build your company is great, but I just wish that further development could be done outside of the company once the company’s build reached its successful and comfortable point.

    • Eric Davis

      Yes it can b limitless but you have to look at the human elemrnt each one is uniqe and a mind of our own i could probably tell you that every one is different we couldnt run a football if yjr banks not built to run

  • Zebelious

    This change in Terms of Use has no impact to the end user whereas it is to do with Google protecting its future. Perhaps the term Fork would have been more appropriate than fragmentation in this case.

    I had already predicted, long time ago, that Google would make Android only appear open-source but in practice it is not. Once the five years open-source promise with China (a condition to agree to purchase Motorola) is up then Google would go ahead with further closing Android. This would have severe consequences to the end users if there aren’t alternatives on the market at the time. So, this is very important that future open platforms to be given a chance to avoid another monopoly from a powerful corporation that already has political influences around the globe.

  • google is right

    • On a Clear Day

      You are right about Google being right. One of the qualities that make a choice of any established operating system nice is that you then have – more or less – depending on the quality of the software developers a level of assurance that the apps for it will work on said OS and play nicely together with other apps.

      If Acer wants its own operating system, or wants to make it so it can offer proprietary apps that won’t run on anyone else’s devices so it have some sort of exclusivity to help distinguish it, then they should develop their own operating system.

      What I want is a dependable OS with apps that work well and seamlessly with each other on whatever device I buy. I do not want to have to waste time pasting together solutions to make something work.

      This, I believe, is the primary motivation behind what Google is doing with these new strictures. Right now the app situation is starting to trend toward more organization and less fragmentation and this is a step in the right direction.

  • Ivan

    don’t derive from android, derive from Linux!
    its the only, plain and simple