Is Google’s increasing control over Android good for users?

October 25, 2013
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Friday Debate aa (1)

On this edition of the Friday Debate, we discuss a topic that generated hot disputes in the Android community in the past week: Google’s power play on Android. Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica recently published a thought-provoking piece where he outlines the way Google moved more and more of the features that were once part of AOSP into its own proprietary applications, thus increasing its control on the Android ecosystem and making it more difficult for other companies to fork it.

Some say that’s a perfectly justified move, others decry it as a betrayal of the ideals of open source software. The bigger question pertains to the effect of the move on consumers – sure, Google provides a great user experience through its apps, but competition is healthy and ultimately a diverse ecosystem may prove more benefic for users than a centralized one.

So, is Google’s increasing control over Android ultimately good for consumers? Is the move from open source to proprietary worrying you? How should other companies react?

Join us in the discussion, vote in our poll, and sound off in the comments!

Robert Triggs

Offering Android as a free and open platform was certainly beneficial to Google as much as it was to consumers looking for alternative products to Apple’s. Google has clearly done well out of it, and it’s hard to deny that its huge stack of resources makes it virtually impossible for anyone else to re-invent Android in another image.

If you’re wearing your skeptical cap, this could be viewed as an attempt to muscle out competitors and tighten its grip on Android. But I’m not convinced that this is Google’s intention, yet.

The company clearly has a vision for Android, and that necessitates the production of some proprietary software and services. It’s impossible for Google to open up all of its software to the open-source crowd, as this would deprive it of the fruits of that investment. As much or as little as the people at Google may believe in open-source, profits from closed software pays for investments in new projects to drive Android forwards.

Equally, there’s nothing, bar costs, stopping third party developers from competing with the vast majority of Google’s products, and many companies do. Google is certainly the benchmark to beat, but it’s not enforcing a monopoly. The company is simply ploughing the most resources into the project, which was always going to make it a tad lopsided.

However, consumers, developers, and Google should all be weary of the risks posed by a monopoly, mainly that of stagnating innovation. The greatest argument in favour of open-source projects isn’t that they’re “free” or that they fulfil a programmer’s Marxist fantasy, but that they are often cutting edge and sustained by the ease of access granted to developers. But by the same token, we must understand that smaller contributors and consumers shouldn’t be able to dictate how the resources of others are allocated, as this too stifles innovation.

With all that being said, if Android becomes an overly difficulty market to compete in, developers will, and should, look elsewhere, and everyone will lose out. We’ve all seen what happens when companies become blinded by their own vision, I’m looking at you Blackberry, so it’s in Google’s best interest to keep the playing field somewhat level.

Overall, I think that Android, and consumers, are better off thanks to Google’s efforts, but I’m undecided whether or not its dominant position will be detrimental to the platform in the long run. I’ll be eagerly watching Cyanogen Inc as a test of Google’s and consumers’ attitudes towards open-source.

Joe Hindy

Oh my there is a lot to talk about. First and foremost, Google closing source on Google Apps is not Google closing source on Android. The OS, insofar as I can tell, remains as open as it ever was with the same rules and restrictions it’s had for years now. So I don’t believe it’s Google trying to control Android, but more like Google trying to control their proprietary applications.

This makes sense because other OEMs (read: Samsung) have begun to wage open war on the Google part of the Android ecosystem. By creating their own mail, translation, voice assistant, browser, etc, Samsung is showing that you can have Android without Google Apps. Of course, this is no lesson that Amazon hasn’t been teaching for years. With Amazon releasing their Google apps alternatives and Samsung releasing theirs as well, it only makes sense that they take what makes their variant of Android special, putting it closer to the vest, and closing the source so they can make faster, bigger, and better changes.

To put it absurdly, even the Nexus has an OEM skin. As many Google engineers have said, when you’re running a Nexus, you are not running stock Android, you’re running Google’s version of Android. It’s no different than Touchwiz, HTC Sense, MIUI, and others. True blue Android wouldn’t have any Google software included. Imagine flashing CyanogenMod without flashing GApps. That’s what stock Android actually looks like.

So here’s how I see it. Google is keeping their proprietary apps closer to the vest so they can better compete with Samsung and Amazon, who are doing essentially the same thing with their Android experience apps. At the end of the day, it’s 3 giant companies competing for our love. That bodes well for us, the consumer, because all 3 are trying to make their experience better. That means all 3 experiences get better and we get better experiences.

Including Google Apps in with Android is, well, wrong. They are two different things. Android is Android. The Play Store, Gmail, Google Now, etc, is not Android, it’s Google. So Google keeping Google’s apps closed source makes sense, especially since Android itself remains as open as ever!

Andrew Grush

Google isn’t a charity. Android needs to be a profitable endeavor, or else it doesn’t matter to the Google that Android is the leading mobile OS.

For Google, that means one of its top priorities is getting folks addicted to its first party apps and services. Of equal importance is Google’s ability to keep its manufacturing partners loyal to Google’s vision for Android.

Google accomplishes the former by making sure its services are the very best, and the latter by imposing manufacturer restrictions on the use of its first party apps and forbidding its partners from using unauthorized forks of Android.

So yes, Google controls the direction of Android through the Open Handset Alliance and by leading the platform with killer apps. Is that the same as having absolute control over the platform? No, it’s not.

Google is a business and puts its own agenda at the forefront, but it has done very little to stifle the overall spirit of Android’s open platform.
For those that have ever used Windows Phone, Blackberry or iOS – you already know how these companies do there best to place limits on what developers and consumers can and can’t do. Third-party apps stores? Good luck with that, unless you want to jailbreak your device, it isn’t happening.In contrast, Android not only allows third party app stores, launchers, lockscreens and more – Google even allows these kinds of apps onto its official Play Store. In fact, Google allows just about anything to come to the Play Store, even if its relatively similar to an existing Google service.

Sure there have been some exceptions, but for the most part Google is very open with its store front.

In contrast, Apple does whatever it can to prevent anything that’s similar to its first party services from making it to the app store. The same goes for Windows Phone and even Blackberry OS, though to a lesser extent than Apple.

Do I feel that Google is working to create an iron grip over Android? Not necessarily, though it’s something to watch out for. I love the fact that Android gives me freedom to make my Android device whatever I want it to be, and if that ever changed, I’d certainly have something to say about it.

For now, I believe there is little to fear but I will admit that could change in time.

Adam Koueider

If anyone is even contemplating the thought that Android is going to become closed source, they shouldn’t. One of the stipulations that the Chinese government attached to Google’s purchase of Motorola was that Android would remain open and free for at least the next 5 years. That means that you won’t have to worry about that scenario for at least another 4 years.

Now let’s start answering the questions raised. Is Google working to gain more control over Android? Yes. Is that good or bad for consumers? It’s a great thing for consumers. The fact is that control and order are good things to have, to a certain extent. You can’t have one pie being pulled in 14 completely different directions, because all you’re going to end up with is a bit of pie on everybody’s faces.

The fact that Google is muscling everybody into a general direction for Android is great for consumers simply because we have an overall idea of where the platform is headed. This means that developers have an idea as to the way their apps should look and function to keep a sustainable app ecosystem, and so that people have a general idea of what to expect when they pick up an Android phone.

Sure Google’s taking Android in a general direction, but that doesn’t mean OEMs aren’t slightly deviating from the Google plan. OEMs still offer MicroSD slots despite Google’s disdain for them, and they still offer physical buttons. We aren’t losing any freedom or choice by Google gaining more control over Android, and the developer community is probably at (or nearing) its peak with the recent Cyanogen Inc. and Paranoid Android announcements.

How should OEMs react? Well they’ve been reacting since the very beginning. OEMs realise that if they want to prosper they need to have a reasonably good relationship with Google. HTC was the first to develop its relationship with Google and even though Samsung has appeared to have loosened its ties with Google it still has made the most Nexus devices and it even created a Google Play Edition variant of the Galaxy S4.

Samsung has also taken appropriate steps to distance itself from Google as well. Nobody wants to be fully dependant on another company to dictate how they’re going to move forward and Samsung, being such a behemoth in supply line management, has started building its own app ecosystem much to the disdain of some.

Am I worried that Android has become less open compared to two years ago? No, because Android has also become a much more mature and developed operating system in those two years as well, and the fact that Google has taken more control of Android has definitely been a factor in this trend. Now all I ask of Google is to stop those fake apps on the Play Store feeding off of the popularity of games and apps like BBM and Dead Trigger 2.

What do YOU think?

Join us in the comments and vote in our poll.

[poll id="404"]

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