Forking Android

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - FEBRUARY 02:  Google's And...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

The tech world is tuning into what TechRepublic calls, in a somewhat hand-wringing fashion, the fragmentation of Android. This refers to the multiple flavours of the Google open-source operating system that has become a newly-hyped darling of the mobile world. Each manufacturer has taken a version and modified it for its own hardware, frequently tying the user to their particular Android build. One might feel this spawns instant frustration for the owner but this rapid differentiation of the operating system is not necessarily “a bad thing”. Any open source product is open to re-working such that different development streams occur. With most such software of course, the user is traditionally more tech-savvy and will select their optimal version with a degree of awareness, often re-compiling the version from the source code with possibly their own tweaks and customisations. For phone and tablet consumers, this is not an option; however technically competent they may be. The key is that they still gain access to homogeneous applications via Android Market – any differentiation where such apps are no longer genuinely portable will quickly kill that particular branch. The variation in Android versions is usually to take advantage of a specific manufacturer’s hardware. Manufacturers do make the re-vamped source code available – see HTC’s development site – but realistically users of a particular piece of hardware are locked in.

By providing an element of ‘genetic’ diversity however, Android is becoming much more of an eco-system than, say, the iOS platform. Despite being a huge fan of the big Apple, it is essential to maintain some choice and competition here. Even Windows Mobile is nipping at a small but growing particle of the mobile market and this is because the techno-Monoliths grasp what is important for the future of all their businesses. Desktop operating systems are likely to morph more and more into their mobile cousins and this, perhaps, is where Android is at a disadvantage. Google does have a desktop offering (let’s exclude the still-born Chrome OS) in its cloud applications accessible via any browser, but could do more to align the two. These MS Office-alternatives are even creeping into the enterprise (to my shock, a government department with whom I have a contract recently asked to share key documents via Google. The cloud is gaining acceptance, folks).

So the splintering of the Android platform generated by its open-source genes and a good dollop of industry buzz could continue to create an important counterpoint to Apple’s dominance of the mobile market. More significantly, it could ensure that there is a credible alternative to the Mac OS X / iOS eco-system for the desktop as more and more users start shifting their computing needs onto their mobile device. This is no mere fantasy or yet more ball-saching hype. The signs are there that mobility is finally happening. Products like OnLive Desktop – which I have yet to play with and which, admittedly, virtualise a Microsoft Windows world – are becoming more accessible with WiFi and 3G ubiquity (and economy !). A caching Google Desktop product which enables offline use and synching with the cloud (a la Apple’s Pages, WhiteNote and a host of other iOS productivity tools which sync with DropBox, iCloud et al) could be a killer.

The pause comes with the reality of the hardware sales that support Android. Recent tablet launches have been disappointing; the Samsung-Apple wars have taken some of the dwindling warmth out of consumer excitement; much-hyped Android sales – whereby phones are streaking past Apple devices in the shops – whilst true, belie the fact that the sales are driven by the lack of choice in the smartphone sector and are less about the merits of Android over iOS or even Windows. And let’s not forget that people are simply short of cash. For now then, keep on forking Android !



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