Mobility

Could Android forks water down the platform?

OnePlus plans on revealing its own flavor of Android, called OxygenOS. The company's intention is to create software that is open, free of bloat, and customizable.

OnePlus plans on revealing its own flavor of Android, called OxygenOS. OnePlus has nothing to show, outside of a promise that it is "going back the drawing board". Their intention is to create software that is open, free of bloat, and customizable.

Forks.

We've gone through this issue once before ─ with Linux. There was a time when it was believed the massive amount of forks would water down the platform to the point it would lose its edge and effectiveness. That never came to fruition ─ mostly because each fork was born of a specific need (for example ─ Kubuntu bringing the KDE desktop to Ubuntu and Edubuntu adding an educational spin on the platform)).

If we're really honest, forking has been around the Android platform for quite some time ─ in the form of ROMs. You can get any number of Android variant, so long as you're willing to root and mod your device. But soon, that won't be necessary. Soon, manufacturers will be shipping their own flavor of Android with their devices.

There's a bit of a problem with forking. Although it sounds like a good idea at first, there are a number of roadblocks. First, and foremost, there's Google Mobile Services (GMS) ─ which includes the Google Play Store. GMS is not part of the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP). That means, if you're going to create a fork from the AOSP, you'll be doing so without GMS ─ so no Google Play Store. What does that mean? You'll be either having to create your own app store or rely on the likes of the Amazon app store. Most of these forks are offering up their own variants (such as the Xiaomi app store).

I remember when I purchased my first Android phone ─ the HTC Hero running Android 1.5. It was bad ... really bad. HTC had overlaid Sense onto Android in such a way that Android wasn't really Android. That was just a home screen addition (you could install a different home screen launcher to get back what felt like vanilla Android). But with the Sense overlay, updates to the operating system were either incredibly slow or simply non-existent. How are forks going to handle this? Imagine existing with an Android device using a forked platform and Lollipop rolls out. You don't get to enjoy all of the incredible features included with the newest iteration of the platform until the manufacturer of your device gets the trickle down effects of Lollipop to the AOSP.

Here's another interesting bit of information. As of Q3 of 2014, Android forks made up 20% of the mobile market (the majority of that being Kindle Fire devices). It should also be known that the largest market of mobile devices in the world, China, doesn't depend upon the Google Play Store. In fact, the majority of paid apps for Android devices, are purchased on third-party app stores ─ mostly from phone manufacturers own app stores. This means the largest mobile market in the world doesn't actually need GMS ─ so forks are not a problem. At least not for OEMs.

For manufacturers like Samsung, HTC, and Motorola, this could easily become an issue. Here's why. With the largest mobile market turning to manufacturers like OnePlus, the shift in the landscape will become significant. Fewer devices sold by the "big three" means more devices sold by the upstarts distributing forks of Android which equates to more devices not using Google Play.

What happens when the percentage of forked devices claiming market share is 30% or 40%? OnePlus could easily make that happen. This is a company creating exciting devices at moderate prices but doing so outside of the standard processes familiar with North American consumers. Purchasing unlocked devices from an invite-only process doesn't fit with the carrier lock-in model and isn't exactly what the average consumer in the United States wants to deal with. On top of that, getting a OnePlus device to function properly on, say ATT's LTE network requires a few major hoops to be jumped through.

Other markets aren't so unfamiliar with purchasing unlocked devices. That means they will not hesitate to purchase a superior device at a lower price ─ even when that device runs a forked version of Android. What's important to understand is that demand for these devices in the US market could blossom (who doesn't want a flagship phone at non-flagship prices). Should that happen, and the demand be met, Google will find themselves in a rather awkward position.

Fewer "pure" Android devices means less market share for Google.

Here's the thing ─ Google cannot stop this. Because there is an open version of Android (even though it is not "complete"), forks will happen ─ just like they did/do with the Linux platform. On some levels, these forks are quite good for Android. They inspire design, push the envelope of innovation, and enable smaller start up companies to add to the Android landscape. And even though they are forks, they are still counted for the overall Android market share.

The big question remains, do the forks water down the brand? If you examine the Linux landscape, you could easily answer that with a resounding "no". How? Linux Mint answers that question to perfection. Without forks, we wouldn't have Mint.

What do you think? Will Android forks have a negative impact on the whole? Or will the likes of OxygenOS help push Android's market share even higher?

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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