Kindle Fire was the first successful Android device without Google’s involvement, but it won’t be the last. Photo (cc) Courtney Boyd Myers
Google’s Android device makers aren’t happy. They’re tired of making commodity devices that are merely vehicles for Google’s Android OS, each indistinguishable from the other because of Google’s rules about how Android can be implemented on them in order for them to qualify as “compatible.”
These makers have seen the success of devices with custom OSes built on forked versions of the still kind-of open-source Android operating system, primarily Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet, and they’re itching to release their own.
Ted Morgan, CEO of Skyhook Wireless, has a unique window onto this phenomenon, because his company provides geolocation services for these yet-to-be-announced devices.
“I’m spending a lot of time with companies forking Android,” says Morgan. “Nobody wants to just be a manufacturer for Google. You see that with what Amazon has done, where they made it their own, and you also see a whole host of manufacturers taking Android down their own path.”
Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet runs a modified version of Android 2.3, “gingerbread.” Because Android’s source code is readily available, companies can do what they want with it. The only thing keeping them tied to Google has been, up to now, the desire to be part of the official lineup of Android devices. Given how fragmented that space is, however, it appears that compatibility with the Android ecosystem is increasingly irrelevant.
Indeed, Morgan says his company is going to be part of a “major” new phone device that will be released at the end of this year. It will be based on Android, but not controlled by Google.
“They [Google] really do restrict anything a device maker can do to stand out, for their own purposes,” says Morgan. “It’s very unappealing to a device maker. They don’t want to be just a commodity hardware maker because they’ll all lose out to cheaper players in China. Everyone’s emboldened by the success of Amazon. Everyone’s saying ‘we need to go our own way.’”
Paradoxically, this trend is positive for Android, just not Google’s control over it. The more success device makers have in creating successful products based on the OS, the more its market share will continue to explode. It’s just that even the consumer might not realize that the devices they’re using are running code that ultimately came from Google.
Update: Google points out that Skyhook is suing it. Skyhook filed two lawsuits in 2010, one alleging that Google used its relationship with mobile manufacturers to block Skyhook from supplying location technology to those companies, another alleging that Google is infringing on several of its patents.