This is why your Android ‘fork’ is doomed to fail

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As we all know, or heard at one time or the other, Android is an open source software. Anyone can take it up and play with it. This is the major factor behind its growth and domination of the smartphone market. Android being free has also led to the emergence of various Android flavours also known as ‘forks’.

So What is an Android fork?

Any time anyone takes the existing (original Android) code, and starts an independent project based on it, they’ve created a fork. It involves downloading the code,using it as a base and forming their own project with it. Samsung does it (Touchwiz), HTC does it (Sense UI), and your favorite ROM developer might do it too. When a fork is made, what you get to see can be very different from what is obtainable on stock Android.

Developing a fork isn’t a good venture. Neither is it a bad one. Android is dominant, so Google turned the trend to their own advantage such that when you create an Android fork, chances of it being a success is near zero. Let’s use a few points to clarify this:

Google tied down the G-Apps

Android as a whole is made up of 2 parts, the open parts from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), which is the foundation of Android, and the closed source parts which are the Google-branded apps or G-Apps as I refer to them. These apps include Gmail, Maps, Talk (Hangouts), YouTube, Google Play Store, Google Play Services, Google Play Music, Google Keyboard, Google Calender etc. These apps were taken from the AOSP code, updated, and moved to Google Play Store. Once this transition happens, further development of any such app ends on the AOSP code.

This implies that whoever wants to make a fork, now has more work to do, updating these various apps. Google being unable to shut down the ‘open source’ project, chose to kill it off in parts such that any competing fork will be compelled to use the G-Apps or suffer to develop them on their own. Consequently, permission to use the G-Apps can only be granted by Google after you agree to their terms.

Google tied down the best of Manufacturers

Before any hardware vendor can run an OS using the (closed) G-Apps, they must be part of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) license agreement. Being part of this agreement ensures you’re free to use the G-Apps and also abide by other rules set by Google including a ban from making a device that runs a competing Android fork. Taking up a clone or fork means you’ll be kicked out, and that spells doom for you as a manufacturer.

You try to be Good, and Google gets better

As an Android clone maker, (after refusing to bow to Google) when you successfully find a decent vendor to make your hardware, you’re now left with the almighty task of building apps to replicate the G-Apps. Who has the time, resources and brains to efficiently build, an Apps Store, Maps/Location Service, Email client, Calender App and all other services that make Google’s Android bliss?

Even when you succeed in making these apps, Google keeps getting better and better with the services they have in place. What are the chances that you’ll end up fruitful with your new venture – which clearly, is competing with Google? And what are the chances that people will abandon their Google service for your own? You carry winch? 😛

Attracting User Base and Making Profit

The essence of any business is making profit. Over to you, our Android fork maker!! After possibly investing everything in building your OS and all other services, will it be good enough to attract fans? Will you have enough follower-ship? Will you end up making profit?

The Only Hope

The most successful complete Android fork has been Amazon with their Kindle. They have done well to replicate the Google Apps, but they still lack the numbers, and financially, I don’t think they’re doing well either.

The Chinese too have banned Google services in their region, and also have replicated some of the Google services. They’re the only ones, I believe that have the resources and man-power to clone Android successfully.

So all ye fork makers and aspirants, Android isn’t as ‘open’ as you think, and you have a choice to make: either give Google control, and enjoy all the benefits of Android, or snatch control from Google and get nothing.

For further reading : Neither Microsoft, Nokia, nor Anyone should fork Android

15 comments

  1. Nice article.

    There is, of course, nothing wrong in reinventing any wheel provided you have the resources to do the invention, and the wheel you are reinventing is a better one than the existing one.

    Otherwise, you are probably better off rolling with the already existing “wheel technology”.

    Google must have given lots of thought to this, and are sitting pretty on its throne.

    The additional problem any fucker would face is that of human nature.

    Inertia.

    Humans abhor change, just like nature abhors a vacuum.

    You would need to provide a significantly better alternative for humans to drop what they are already used to, and already works for them.

    But, hey, Amazon performed the feat. That proves it’s doable.

    Only difficult and resource consuming…

  2. I think the authors claim is somewhat ludicrous and unnecessarily alarmist, Android forks are not doomed to fail. Touchwiz which commands about 46% of the Android space is not pure Android, it is a fork of Android, and so is every Android OS installed on mobile devices besides say Motorola and a handful of lazy OEMs. CyanogenMOD has been successful. Paranoid ROM is garnering interest, and so is Amazon FireOS.

    Google realizes that trying to control what these OEMs do with Android is a lost cause and that where they have made the most essential parts of Android available on the Play Store (Play Services, Keyboard, Chrome, Maps). The part of Google locking out OEM is not really realistic. Anyone who flashes ROMs knows just how easy it is to install GApps (it’s done by OTA updates now).

  3. TouchWiz, Sense and other OEM skins aren’t forks of Android. they are flavours of Android different from stock (Vanilla) Android. the OEMs and US carriers all get Vanilla code and add (or disable) features and apps. if they were forks, Samsung and HTC wouldn’t be in the Open Handset Alliance. if Samsung could fork Android and still remain in the OHA they wouldn’t be spending billions to develop Tizen. as for Amazon’s Fire OS, which is the leading Android fork, it’s been a small disaster in the smartphone segment. Fire OS does pretty well in the tablet/e reader segment. Cyanogen Inc (and Oppo) are making small waves with the One Plus One but it’s really down to the pricing of the device rather than any thirst for CyanogenMod

  4. Nice writeup! I have issue with this conclusion:

    So all ye fork makers and aspirants, Android isn’t as ‘open’ as you think, and you have a choice to make: either give Google control, and enjoy all the benefits of Android, or snatch control from Google and get nothing.

    Actually, Android is as open as it had been right from day one. If you intend forking Android without signing Google contract and still want those services from Google, what the hell are you forking then? The AOSP version still have things like AOSP keyboard. the essence of having Google Keyboard and other important apps available on Google Play Store and separate from the AOSP is so older devices that cannot be updated by the device makers can still have access to some of the latest improvements in Android.

    The AOSP is distinct from Google Android because as you rightly said, Google Apps or G-Apps are proprietary and I don’t really see the essence of forking Android if you still want to use those services.

    I’m confident that Microsoft and Apple are big enough to fork Android but then, that will be owning up to the unpalatable truth that Android and open source are superior to their various platform. I think Microsoft may eventually go that route if Windows Phone fails to catch on at the end of next year.

  5. Call it what you want, Forks or Flavours, they are still forks. Touchwiz and Sense aren’t Google’s android, they are the OEM’s take on the AOSP (which is a fork) + GApps. The only difference from Touchwiz and FireOS is the OHA thing and the exclusion of GApps (which amazon doesn’t need because of their own alternatives).

  6. @martinnkem

    every Android OEM has an Android skin to differentiate their devices.
    Samsung – TouchWiz, HTC – Sense, SONY – Timescape, Huawei – Emotion, Oppo – Color OS, Meizu – FlyMe, LG & Lenovo have skins too but they don’t have product names, even Motorola that’s a Google company has MotoBlur. are you saying all Android OEMs have their own Android forks? OEM skins are just custom(ized) UIs and supplementary apps, forks go down to source code and replaces apps and backend services

  7. In order to fork Android you do not need to change much of the codes on the AOSP. Google’s services which is the crucial part runs on top of AOSP. Companies such as have showed just how easy it is. The article that inspired this one here is just the author’s erroneous thoughts on how complicated it is do away with GMS, which in reality isnt that difficult just as long you really want to do it, tons of Chinese and Russian OEMs have done this already. CyanogenMod have shown just how easy it is to add the GMS. My point is that android forks can work and are working right we only call them skins.

    The only reason why nobody calls these android forks (branches) skins is because they are google certified but it doesn’t change the fact that they are forks of the original AOSP with some customizations that make it different from that on the Nexus.

    There is no part of the GMS that isnt replaceable by something else.
    GMail = replaced by K-9 mail, bluemail, etc
    Maps = HERE maps, Sygic etc
    Play music = Poweramp etc
    Play book = kindle
    Play magazine = flipboard
    Play Store = Amazon app store, or any carefully curated app store since android apks can be installed without the play store and any interested party can curate these apps and ask their developers for permission and agreements later.

    And the end of the day, Android can be forked successfully all it requires

  8. I’m trying to understand your argument Martinkem. OEM layers in my opinion are more a source for differentiation (albeit a functional one) than a radical deviation of stock android (fire OS, Nokia X platform). I do not see Google certifying a fork of their OS, otherwise why separate Gapp from AOSP. Furthermore, OEMs won’t be a part of OHA if they fork (with) Google (er Android) Finally, going by your logic, whenever I download and install a 3rd party launcher, I’ve basically forked Android on my phone.

  9. Forks go down to source code and replace apps and backend services// This is the point I’m trying to make clear. @Martin.. You can install the G-Apps on your fork(if it will even support apk files as it is), but I’m saying a fork maker can’t bundle it in just like that unless they officially bow to Google.. Samsung even with their Touchwiz skin, can’t leave Android and focus on Tizen(an Android fork) because they will be doomed. Their success has been reliant on their being under the Google’s Android umbrella.

  10. Okay I think I’m understanding this A fork of Android is basically What Nokia or Should I say Windows Run on their Nokia x2 while a While Flavour or Custom Rom for Example is CyanogenMod?

  11. Exactly. Samsung, HTC, Sony are not running a fork of Android. What they have is a US (user interface) to differentiate their products.

  12. You contradicted yourself in this article. You wrote that Touchwiz (Samsung) and Sense US (HTC) are forks of Android. Yet you made the following statement

    “Google tied down the best of Manufacturers

    Before any hardware vendor can run an OS using the (closed) G-Apps, they must be part of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) license agreement. Being part of this agreement ensures you’re free to use the G-Apps and also abide by other rules set by Google including a ban from making a device that runs a competing Android fork. Taking up a clone or fork means you’ll be kicked out, and that spells doom for you as a manufacturer.”

    Touchwiz and HTC Sense are UR (User interface) more like a Launcher. They are not Forks of Android.
    All Samsung Galaxy gadgets run Touchwiz UI. They also come with G-Apps pre-installed on them. They cannot have G-Apps pre-installed if they are Forks of Android (your statement above attests to that).
    Samsung is the most successful Android phone maker and they are very successful. Yet you wrote that any one that Forks android cannot be successful, and according to you, Samsung Touchwiz US is a fork of Android. These are contradictory.

  13. @chibex

    Tizen is not a Android fork, it might be based on linux just like Android but at the end of the day it is not Android. Tizen is supposed to have a compatibility layer or runtime that allows it to run android apps.

    Touchwiz is not stock android and goes a lot deeper than a mere skin that you guys insist it is. The guys at Google know that Touchwiz as it is has gone beyond what Android is and they have been rumoured to have asked Samsung to rlcut down on it.

    You guys keep mentioning changes on the backend. Please can you list what you consider are the backend that are changed on say CyanogenMOD, FireOS and the Nokia X OS that clearly makes it forks and Touchwiz not.

  14. I was trying to use it to clarify the fact that anyone can take Android and work on it . Yes, Touchwiz, and Sense UI are not forks,they are merely skins/customizations they use to differentiate their Android from others.

  15. the backends and services we keep referring to are numerous but let’s concentrate on Google Play Services & Google Cloud that support the apps and services you use eg Cloud to Device messaging powers your IMs. automatic backup of app data and contact information. a fork would have to replace this, Amazon has AXS and Microsoft has Microsoft Cloud/Azure

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