I can’t say it enough how impressed I am with Android and for those of you who still just don’t quite get it, I want you to take a moment and read this article from the guys at Gizmodo.com. Just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside! -Greg
So Wait, What Is Android, Exactly?
In Google’s words, it’s “the first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices.” That doesn’t mean much, so here’s a breakdown: It’s a Linux-based, open-source mobile OS, complete with a custom window manager, modified Linux 2.6 kernel, WebKit-based browser and built-in camera, calendar, messaging, dialer, calculator, media player and album apps. If that sounds a little sparse, that’s because it is: Android on its own doesn’t amount to a whole lot; in fact, a phone with plain vanilla Android wouldn’t feel like a smartphone at all. Thankfully, these phones don’t exist.
Android is Linux insofar as its core components are open-source and free, and Google must publish their source code with every release. But the real heart of the Android phone experience—the Google apps like Maps, GChat, Gmail, Android Market, Google Voice, Places and YouTube are closed-source, meaning Google owns them outright. Every Google phone comes with these apps in one form or another so to the user this distinction isn’t that important. That said, it occasionally rears its head, like when Android modder Cyanogen had to strip the apps out of his custom Android builds to avoid getting sued by Google:
The issue that’s raised is the redistribution of Google’s proprietary applications like Maps, GTalk, Market, and YouTube. They are Google’s intellectual property and I intend to respect that. I will no longer be distributing these applications as part of CyanogenMod.
This can lead to more mainstream (and confusing) issues, like with the, erm, touchy (sorry!) multitouch issue: Android OS supports multitouch, in that it can recognize multiple simultaneous input points on its screen. But Google’s Android apps don’t. So when a company like HTC comes along and decides to properly add multitiouch to the OS, they can only add it to the open-source parts, like the browser (or their own closed-source apps), not Google’s proprietary apps. That’s why the Hero has pinch-zoom in its browser and photo albums but not in Google Maps, where it’s just as at home.
The issue gets even less trivial as the apps grow more central to the Android experience. You know how Google Maps Navigation was, like, the banner feature for Android 2.0? Well, it was, but technically speaking, it’s not a part of Android. It’s just part of an app made by Google for Android, and that’ll ship with most Android handsets. Except for in countries where Google doesn’t have their mapping data quite together enough, where it won’t. That’s what’s happening with the Euro Droid, which, by the way, does have multitouch in its browser, like the Hero. That’s why the distinction matters.
So, why take so much care to set up and protect this open source component, when surely Google could just slap together a closed-source mobile operating system and give it away for free, right? It would deprive handset manufacturers of their ability to freely modify certain core components of the OS, sure, but the real reasoning, oddly enough, has less to do with phones and more to do with, well, everything else.