Kevin Marks has a good post today about the “two faces of Android.” What he means by that is that there’s the fully open source face, and the Google face. In other words, the face that lets you do whatever you desire, and the face that makes you follow some rules in order to include Google’s own apps and possibly their branding.
As Marks notes, it’s an interesting dichotomy because with regard to the former, “there is already a Cambrian Explosion of new Android devices going on in China and India.” And that’s likely to continue and accelerate. But there’s also the potential for this divide to get a lot more interesting. This will happen when other companies start using Android as the base for their own branded OSes.
At the end of his piece, Marks hits on this:
However, a lot of the day-to day utility of an Android device is in the proprietary, partners-only layer – that you only get after doing a business development deal with Google of some kind. What we will start to see is alternatives for these Applications being developed. To some extent we’re already seeing this from US carriers, but I think this year we’ll see both an Open Source suite of apps to swap in many of these functions, and other proprietary offerings to compete with the Google upper half.
Who could build such a suite? Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft clearly have most of the necessary pieces, but how about Baidu, Tencent, Vkontakte or other companies with strong regional ties?
What’s interesting here is that when we were digging in to all the hoopla surrounding the “Facebook Phone” this is essentially what started to surface: that Facebook was digging into Android to see if and how they could use it as an underlying layer for their own mobile OS. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said, it would take Facebook years of work to create their own OS from scratch. But with Android as the base, that could be cut to months.
And if Facebook did that, would they want to have to work with Google to ensure their apps are on such a device? No way. In fact, they undoubtedly would not want to work with Google on it. Instead, as Marks suggests, they would build their own suite of apps to replace the Google variety. And they already have a number of them. Gmail? Messages. Talk? Chat. Contacts? Better contacts. Maps? They’d presumably use Bing Maps. Search? Again, likely Bing Search mixed with Facebook’s own search (just as they do on their site).
The question then becomes: does this piss off Google enough to limit the open source Android in some way? You’d have to believe the answer to that is “no”. Google has played up the “openness” way too much to be so hypocritical in that way. And that’s good. Hopefully this type of competition would force them to react simply by making their own flavor of Android better and more appealing to both partners and consumers.
And if one company is able to utilize Android successfully in their own way, you would likely see a swell of copycat activity. That’s where the BaiduPhone, the TenecentPhone, and maybe one day the TwitterPhone would come from. It’s a fascinating possibility.
Of course, there’s the downside. As Marks also notes, to some extent, U.S. carriers and OEMs have already begun manipulating Android for their own purposes. Right now, this is mainly just scratching the surface. There are skins, apps that are pre-installed (and can’t be uninstalled), and new app stores popping up. But what happens when the Droid by Verizon simply becomes the VerizonPhone? That is, what happens when Verizon decides that they want to wipe Android down to the open source basics and build their own OS filled with all their ugly red-tinged stuff? Then AT&T does the same? Etc.
I’m sure the carriers will keep some Google Android phones as options for customers willing to pay a bit more. But they’ll probably market the hell out of their own devices. Devices with Verizon mail, Verizon maps, VCAST apps, VCAST media, etc, etc, etc. It will be open source used to create the ultimate closed phone environment. And it will happen. Just wait.
At that point, it will become a battle of the goodness of open source (cool FacebookPhones, super-cheap generic Android phones) versus the greed and manipulation of the carriers (the VerizonPhone, backed by $500 million in marketing, and buy one get 6 free). Let’s hope the good guys win.
[image: Warner Bros.]