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BLOG: Meet AOSP, the other Android, while you still can

Galen Gruman | Feb. 17, 2014
There's more to the Android ecosystem than the branded Android devices, though the future is iffy.

In China, Xiaomi is in a similar position to make such technology investments, and that's why ithired a key Google exec, Hugo Barra, last year. If Microsoft's soon-to-be-subsidiary Nokia announces an Android device next week as rumored, it may also be an AOSP-based device, not a "real" Android device -- Microsoft also has the resources to replicate key GMS features using alternative technologies. (Why it would do so is another question!)

AOSP is a bare-bones OS that Google has been updating less and less, and at some point it may not be a viable Android OS any longer. In fact, AOSP's chief, Jean-Baptiste Quéru, quit in disgustat Google's neglect last year. A neglect-inflicted death is certainly what competing open source and Web-based platforms such as Firefox OSUbuntu Touch, and Sailfish are counting on.

You can see the progression of Google's shift from AOSP to GMS in the various Android OS versions. The early Android versions, like 1.6 "Donut" were mostly AOSP, whereas the 4.4 "KitKat" version is predominantly GMS. That may explain why the most recent Android version's adoption by device makers has been slow -- it puts them in the position of making me-too Android devices (or at least me-too-er ones) and be more and more locked into Google's proprietary aspects. The increasing proprietariness of Android via GMS also explains why Samsung continues to dabble with the often-promised but as-yet-undelivered Tizen.

All this adds up to a strange brew. Half of the Android devices out there run on AOSP, which seems to be on its way to abandonment. The other half are less able to differentiate themselves from each other.

For those into the mobile horse race, the non-AOSP-only Android smartphones still outsell the iPhone; the iPad still rules in tablets even if you include them. But once the industry recognizes that AOSP isn't really Android as DOS really isn't Windows, the mobile horse race will look to be a lot closer, a near tie between iPhones and "high end" Android phones. In the tablet arena, the iPad will still be the leader, and Android remain a distant second place, followed by the AOSP-based Kindle Fire, whose sales have fallen in the last year and no longer threaten "real" Android tablets from Samsung and others, whose sales are growing. When all is said and done, we'll experience a psychic change in that horse race.

For those who don't really care about market horse races, the bigger implication is that much of the developing world is using a platform whose longevity is uncertain, and those regions may be ripe for a big shift in the mobile platforms it uses. The developing world has already largely abandoned BlackBerry and Nokia's Series 40 OSes (and is doing the same to Nokia's Asha follow-on) in favor of AOSP Android. Will it step up to AOSP+GMS Android or to iOS as it becomes richer? Will it shift to another simple mobile OS? Or will it remain a complex stew of OSes even as the developed world moves further into becoming a Samsung-Apple duopoly?


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