Manufacturers planning forked versions of the Android OS

android fragmented

Although Google’s Android OS was the savior for a number of big companies (Motorola, Samsung, you hear me?), and is also responsible for the appearance (and, to a certain extent, the success) of a number of smaller companies (Archos is a name that quickly pops out), apparently, there are quite a few unhappy Android OEMs out there. According to Ted Morgan, CEO of Skyhook Wireless, his company is working with a number of manufacturers to provide geolocation services for upcoming devices that will run forked versions of Android, a direction that an increasing number of manufacturers plan to take in the future.

For the record, Morgan’s Skyhook  has been involved in a bitter legal dispute with Google, somehow related (coincidence?) to the power relations that exist between Google and OEMs, Motorola is in that specific case. You can read more about the Skyhook-Google dispute and the way Google throws its weight around to impose its will on manufacturers, in this excellent analysis from The Verge’s Nilay Patel.

It is well known that, in order for a device to be declared by Google as Android compatible, the manufacturer has to adhere to a set of Google-imposed rules. According to Morgan, a lot of manufacturers feel like these rules make it very hard for them to differentiate their devices in the sea of Android products. “They [Google] really do restrict anything a device maker can do to stand out, for their own purposes,” says Morgan.

As reported, the main advantage of Android compatibility — easy access to the huge ecosystem Google has coalesced around its mobile OS — is becoming less important to certain manufacturers. These manufacturers have been encouraged to come up with devices than run modified versions of the Android OS, by the huge success Amazon had with its Kndle Fire tablet, one that runs on a forked version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread. “Everyone’s emboldened by the success of Amazon. Everyone’s saying ‘we need to go our own way.’”

Personally, if what Skyhook’s CEO said turns out to be true, I believe it will be a major problem for the Android OS, and for Google in particular. Although it’s nice to leave room for even more innovation, further fragmenting the ecosystem  is obviously not a solution.

Currently, Google  can’t do anything to stop manufacturers from walking down this path, as Android is mostly open source, meaning everyone has access to the code; manufacturers are all allowed to come up with modifications of their own. But if this becomes an issue for Google and their marketing efforts, they are capable (I’m just saying they can, not that they will) of closing Android up and distributing it only for devices deemed compatible.

We’ll see how this story develops in the future and we’ll be here to report it. In the meantime, you can tell us what you think about this idea: will forked versions bring more diversity to the Android ecosystem or will they end up fragmenting the OS even further? Drop us a line in the comment section below!

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