Is Android Really Open Source? And Does It Even Matter?

I use Android because it’s made from Linux, and I’m not alone here. Many open source desktop users first picked up an Android phone due to the appeal of a Linux-based mobile operating system. I’m sure that’s why many of you are reading this now.

Android has seen wide adoption, and that has caused some discomfort. This is only partly due to the occasional Linux user’s desire to buck the mainstream. The bigger problem is what phone makers, carriers, and even Google have done to the operating system. The fact of the matter is, any Android phone you pick up from the store is locked down and running a fair amount of closed source code.

As a result, people who value open source ideals have found themselves looking towards Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, and Sailfish OS instead — and watching with disappointment as all three have thus far failed to take off. Canonical, despite shipping Ubuntu on a few phones, has yet to release a genuinely consumer-ready model. Firefox OS has pivoted into an Internet of Things project. Jolla, despite recently pushing Sailfish OS 2.0, is still working out kinks. None of them have entered the US market.

The situation leaves Android as the primary option for many people looking to use Linux on their phones. But the question remains, is Android truly open source?

Technically, Yes

Android has open source roots. The project began under Android, Inc. in 2005, which Google bought two years later. That same year, Google and several other companies formed the Open Handset Alliance, with Android being the primary piece of software this consortium is built on.

Android is based on the Linux kernel, and like that complex piece of code, most parts are open source with a few binary blobs included to make things work with certain hardware. The core Android platform, known as the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), is available for anyone to do with what they wish.

HTC, Huawei, LG, Samsung, Sony, Xiaomi, and many other manufacturers have all done precisely this on phones and tablets. They’re hardly alone.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble have put it on e-readers. HP has put Android into a laptop. NVIDIA shoved Android onto a game console. Sony is shipping the operating system on its new smart TVs. You can get Android on everything from point-and-shoot cameras to refrigerators. Companies are tripping over themselves to put Android Wear on watches.

And that’s not even counting all the things tinkerers have put Android on.

Unlike iOS and Windows Phone, people don’t have to pay anyone money to use Android in their product. And since the code is open, they’re free to experiment and adapt the software as they like.

Then Why Doesn’t It Feel Like It?

There’s a significant difference between using traditional desktop Linux and running Windows. The contrast between Android and iOS doesn’t feel nearly as stark. If Android is open source, why doesn’t it feel like it?

1. People Are Allowed to Lock Down Open Source Code

Android is open source, but most of the software we run on top of the platform isn’t. This is true whether you get a Nexus device or something from Samsung. Unlike in the early days of the Android, the Google Now Launcher and most of Google’s apps have become closed source.

The same is true of the code that ships on Samsung, HTC, LG, and other manufacturers’ custom adaptations. Most of the apps you get on Google Play, regardless of if they’re free to download, also aren’t open source. Since this software forms the bulk of what we see and use, the situation makes Android ultimately feel like a closed source platform.

But people are allowed to make closed source software that runs on Linux. Unless creators distribute software under a copyleft license, others can take the code and use it to make proprietary applications.

Google publishes much of Android under Apache License version 2.0, which does not prevent people from using the code to create restrictive products. That people have done this does not make Android itself closed down. If anything, that so many people base their work on Android is a testament to its success as an open source project.

2. Android’s Core Development Isn’t Community Driven

For the most part, Google develops Android. Once or twice a year, the company dumps a bunch of new code over a metaphorical wall that tinkerers and hardware makers rush (or, you know, take their time) to put in their stuff.

Google then releases maintenance and security updates every month or so while it prepares for the next big release.

Many other well-known open source projects typically seek more involvement from the broader community. Red Hat may fund a good portion of the work that goes into GNOME, but developers from all over the world contribute code.

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, exercises a great deal of control over how that Linux distribution looks and feels, but community members still have a say in what programs get into the app repositories or what goes up on some of the websites.

By comparison, Android comes off as entirely a Google product.

3. You Don’t Have Full Control

Part of what attracts people to Linux and other open source operating systems is the freedom and control that’s available. You can’t dive into the heart of a Windows or Mac OS X machine and see what makes it tick. With Linux, you may not understand most of the code, but you’re free to tinker with more or less all of it.

Practically speaking, an Android phone ships out of the box with only marginally more freedoms than an iPhone. You may be able to change the launcher, apply some extensive themes, and tailor some functionality to suit your tastes, but you’re not able to tinker with the underlying operating system without voiding your warranty.

More extensive tweaks require rooting your device or flashing a custom ROM. In this regard, it can feel like you have more freedom on a proprietary desktop operating system than an open-source mobile one.

But Android Really is Open Source

And it’s not simply open in name only. There is plenty of evidence out there that Android is truly open, and we get to reap the tangible benefits.

1. Custom ROMs Exist

Community-made ROMs based on AOSP give Android users alternatives to the software that ships on their devices. CyanogenMod runs on millions of Android smartphones. Out of the box, the experience isn’t all that different from what you can get on a Nexus. Heck, that’s the reason many people opt to flash a ROM in the first place.

CyanogenMod isn’t the only option out there either. Many have risen and fallen over the years, such as Paranoid Android and AOKP. In some ways, the custom ROM ecosystem resembles the Linux distribution model. These ROMs are mostly the same, but projects take the same code and tweak it in different ways. This wouldn’t be possible if Android itself wasn’t open source.

2. Even The Open Source Competitors Depend On Android

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned Firefox OS, Sailfish OS, and Ubuntu Touch as competing open-source mobile operating systems. The thing is, the teams behind all three of these projects have used Android code in one way or another. Sailfish OS, despite not being based on Android, lets you install Android apps directly.

Firefox OS began as Boot to Gecko, which you could install on Android devices. Before Ubuntu Touch, there was Ubuntu for Android.

There’s incredible irony to the idea that Android could be closed source, but projects based on it can be open.

3. You Can Take Control of Your Device

Manufacturers and carriers may not want you to, and doing so may void your warranty, but you do have the option to do what you want with your hardware. You can root to gain administrative access, unlock the bootloader, or flash an alternate operating system (such as running Ubuntu Touch instead).

These may not be Android’s advertised features, but they’re there. And while the vast majority of people with Android devices don’t tinker with them in such a way, you would hardly be the only person that does.

There are millions of people out there that love having the freedom to use their phones and tablets in this way.

Why Does It Matter?

People use open source operating systems for many different reasons. Some don’t trust giving up control of their data. Plus proprietary applications and services come and go, but open source software sticks around, even when it’s unsupported. Free operating systems can also breathe life into hardware that works just fine, but companies have decided to abandon.

And there are no shortage of ethical reasons, from determining who should have a say to what runs on what hardware, to discussions of wealth, privacy, and freedom.

As millions of people embrace mobile computing, it’s important that people have the options that are available on desktops and laptops. Caring about any of the above things shouldn’t mean giving up phones, tablets, and cool things with touchscreens.

Today, Android remains the best mobile option for people who value open source. Out of the box, it may be an overly commercialized, ad-heavy experience, but you can change that.

I use CyanogenMod and get my software from F-Droid. This combination may seem limiting compared to what you get from Google Play, but it’s a more feature-rich experience than what competing open source operating systems currently bring to the table. I’m still watching and hoping these alternatives find success, but while I wait for them to succeed, I’m listening to podcasts, using GPS navigation, managing my local music library, and staying in touch with people using a reliable and speedy mobile device running predominantly open source software today.

Why do you use Android? Does the open source aspect mean much to you? Are you waiting around for an alternative free mobile operating system to catch on? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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