No doubt you’ve seen the stat showing how much more popular Android smartphones are than iPhones in much of the world. But many of those Android smartphones aren’t the Android you’re thinking of — the kind you’d get from Samsung, HTC, or Motorola. That’s because there’s more than one Android. In fact, some analysts believe that about half of the Android devices in the world aren’t ones you’d consider to be Android.
The other Android is called Android Open Source Platform (AOSP), and it’s the truly open source part of Android, used as the basis of smartphones and tablets throughout the world.
You can also think of AOSP as akin to DOS: the embedded core OS in Windows before Windows NT came along. In that thinking, the Windows GUI is analogous to Google Mobile Services (GMS), the set of services that runs on top of AOSP to deliver the complete Android experience. GMS is as proprietary as iOS or Windows Phone. Google doesn’t charge money for it, but it comes with a lot of requirements that give Google a lot of control over Android devices. It’s also part of all those Google services, from the Google Play app store to the Google Maps APIs that many Android devices rely on to provide their Androidness.
If you live in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, or South Korea and other rich Asian nations, chances are you’re using Android devices based on both the AOSP core and the GMS services that together represent the Google Android experience. Sure, manufacturers can add their own services and APIs on top of these two, but once you scratch those skins’ surface, you’re back to the Android experience.
In the rest of the world, chances are greater that your Android device is running AOSP. Thus, it doesn’t provide much of the Google experience.
AOSP is used by most of the really cheap Android devices, such as those in China and India, as well as large parts of the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. AOSP is cheaper to use because its services are so basic that it can run on inexpensive hardware better suited for the small incomes of poor countries. It also ironically is a good fit in countries like China where the government doesn’t want a foreign company to have that much reach into citizens’ data and communications — where the government wants to keep that pile of riches for itself.
AOSP is also what Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire tablet OS is based on and why it offers none of the Google services you’d expect from Android. Amazon has to replicate any of the GMS services such as an app store that it wants to offer — and Amazon is one of the few companies that can do that.
In China, Xiaomi is in a similar position to make such technology investments, and that’s why it hired 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 disgust at Google’s neglect last year. A neglect-inflicted death is certainly what competing open source and Web-based platforms such as Firefox OS, Ubuntu 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?
It’ll be interesting to see how this all goes. But the next time someone talks about “Android,” you’ll know it’s not necessarily what he or she thinks it means. The Android you see may not be the Android you’re looking for — and a big chunk of the Android world may not be around much longer.