Android is the new Linux — and that’s not a good thing

35 Comments

Google’s (s GOOG) mobile operating system Android is the new Linux: open, free (aside from patent issues), and just a utility. It’s completely worthless as a brand in which to build upon. Unfortunately for Google, Android means different things to different companies. For HTC and Samsung it’s beginning to be a patent mess. And for Amazon (s AMZN), it’s just a customizable layer that doesn’t even deserve branding, acknowledgment, or universal support. And ultimately this will be Android’s downfall into irrelevance.

Android, based originally on a kernel of Linux, and backed by 84 hardware and software partners, as part of the Open Handset Alliance, was first envisioned to be the next open mobile standard. Google presumed, with good reason, that if they were able to get industry consensus there would be less compatibility issues, more sales, and a much higher chance of long-term success. Well, one out of three ain’t bad.

Sales we can’t argue with. According to Nielsen in their latest report, Android accounts for a 43% share of the smartphone market. And the recent purchase of Motorola Mobility (MMI) by Google has led many analysts to believe that Google is saying to the world two critical things: (1) We’re all in on Android; and (2) Securing more patents will help buttress Android from patent suits. But it also showed a significant weakness. “The MMI purchase is the result of Google’s miscalculations about the way value is captured in mobile computing. These strategic missteps placed Google in a position of weakness and forced it into a costly and desperate move,” said Horace Dediu, noted mobile industry analyst.

Android Becomes Linux

It’s fitting that Android was birthed from Linux. Long thought to be the crown jewel of the “open software approach,” Linux is an operating system that is completely free and the source code may be modified at will and given away or sold. It was going to herald in a new era of desktop computing and conquer Microsoft (s MSFT) in the 80s, claimed fanboys. Of course, no such thing happened. In case you hadn’t heard Microsoft went on to have a little bit of success, and Linux pretty much became destined for servers, where it mostly resides today. In fact, the competitive advantages that Linux held over other operating systems — free to use, easy and legal to modify, and can work on nearly any device — led to its being relegated to being just a utility to be manipulated by any manufacturer’s fancy, and an even smaller brand identity among mainstream consumers. Turned out people didn’t really care if their operating system was open or not; they just wanted it to work well.

Android is heading in the same direction. Fragmentation is a big issue (One that Google has acknowledged). Because so many partners are using different versions of Android, updating them when they see fit (as opposed to on a unified schedule), and naturally have different hardware limitations, the Android that developers are expecting isn’t necessarily the Android that their apps can play well with. A recent poll of 250 Android developers found that 86% were concerned about fragmentation, and 56% said it was a meaningful or “huge” problem, an increase over the previous 3 months.

Amazon Redefines Android

If that weren’t bad enough, Amazon’s new tablet, the Kindle Fire, which is built on Android — though you’d be hard-pressed to know — won’t officially support Android apps outside of Amazon App Store. It’s the equivalent of buying a Windows PC at Best Buy and not being able to use Excel on it unless, of course — you guessed it — Excel was also purchased at Best Buy. I don’t fault Amazon for this. It’s actually a stroke of genius guaranteeing that Kindle Fire users will only be buying their matches from Amazon. Users, or detractors, can put the blame squarely where it deserves to be — on Google. By making Android so open as to become a brand-less utility free to be consumed, modified, reimagined, and devoid of the competitive advantage it was born of — namely, openness — Google has allowed Pandora’s box to be opened.

And what’s awaiting inside? Amazon, in a bid to make it “easier” to surf the web on the Fire, has decided to pre-cache user web browsing, meaning use their servers to communicate user information to the site destination. The implications? “Amazon will capture and control every Web transaction performed by Fire users. Every page they see, every link they follow, every click they make, every ad they see is going to be intermediated by one of the largest server farms on the planet, said  Apple engineer Chris Espinosa. How’s that for open?

And it gets better. Not only is Amazon changing the purpose of Android –— to proliferate an open mobile operating system — they’re also changing the profit model on which it was created. Espinosa goes on to say:

“[Amazon doesn’t] use Google’s web browser; they can intermediate user click through on Google search results so Google doesn’t see the actual user behavior. Google’s whole play of promoting Android in order to aggregate user behavior patterns to sell to advertisers is completely subverted by Amazon’s intermediation.”

Google gave Android away for free because the more services they could bake into Android, the more advertising revenue they could generate. In the first quarter of this year ad revenue accounted for 97% of Google’s profit (a typical percentage). So Google can’t afford for Amazon’s Kindle Fire to be successful. Not only would that kill the notion that ‘open’ is the future of the mobile space as much as Linux was the future of the desktop, it would also set a precedent: while Google may need Android,  Android definitely doesn’t need Google.

John S. Wilson is a health policy analyst and editor of Policy Diary, a weekly health policy blog. He can be reached at john@policydiary.com or on Twitter: @johnswilson1

35 Comments

net

linux is not an operating system its a kernel, this article is not worth reading as a whole, get your facts straight

net

didnt read the whole thing as it has too many inconsistencies from the begining, linux is not an operating system, it’s a kernel on which you can build upon an OS, it started to get developed in 1991, so the “linux fanboys” couldnt have know of it on the 80’s

Florin Jurcovici

This article is biased.

Although the progress of Linux on the desktop is very slow in terms of user base, it exists. In terms of functionality, the advances are huge over the last few years.

Amazon redefines Android: what exactly is the market of Kindle Fire? I had a look at its specs, I wouldn’t use one if I got it for free. It doesn’t fit my typical use case – collaboration on the road. IMO, that’s what tablets are all about, and Kindle Fire, without a camera or mic, isn’t really supporting this.

ihbrune

How the time has changed: one year ago you read that Android will never make it and that Apple will soon again rule the world. This never happend and the chances are good it will never happen.

It is still worth to remember that Google saved us from a world in which only one app store exists and we all have to buy what a californian company thinks is good for us.

I like Android very much but it already served it’s main purpose: giving us choice and preventing a monopoly on the smartphone market.

And the example of Amazon using Android and making heavy modifications: this demonstrates the power of Googles initiative even more: the branded Android tablet haveb been unable to compete with the iPad until now, but here comes Amazon and will sell millions and millions of tablet that are no iPads. This is a win situation for the free internet and us consumers.

Ovidio

I wonder where did you hear that linux “was going to herald in a new era of desktop computing and conquer Microsoft in the 80s” if it was created in 1992.

gretzky99

Android makes it possible to sell great low-end smartphones, thus the technology can reach a broader audience. Fragmentation is a negative side effect of this. But do you think that there would be this many Android devices if all of them would cost as much as one of the most expensive Android phones?

g99

Android makes it possible to sell great low-end smartphones, thus the technology can reach a broader audience. Fragmentation is a negative side effect of this. But do you think that there would be this many sold Android devices if all of them would cost as much as one of the most expensive Android phones?

Otto

I have to say that your points make no real sense. Android being ubiquitous and on a variety of devices can only be a win for Google… and everybody else. Compatibility is king, and having competing platforms encourages innovation. The user is the ultimate winner by having choices.

I won’t be buying a Kindle Fire because of what you just stated about it being locked into Amazon, in fact. See? Choice.

Anyway, the Kindle Fire’s own users will quickly either hack open the thing and bypass the restrictions (see every iPhone ever), or wipe it and install their own unrestricted software. Even if this is a fraction of a percent of the userbase, that’s enough to satisfy the masses. What’s the stat for jailbroken iPhones again? 1 in 7?

Also, your comparison is silly. Linux has never pushed for the desktop in any serious way. The only talk about it has been from fans, mostly, not from companies making real products. There were some half-assed attempts, mostly by fly-by-nights that got more press than they deserved, but nothing seriously serious.

BTW, your argument really falls flat mostly because Linux has already won. There’s more running copies of Linux in the world than any other operating system. Every household with a laptop has about 3 or more devices in the same building that are running some version of Linux. Your relegation of it to “servers” is silly. Do you own a wireless router? DVR? Cable box? Hell, your TV itself probably runs an embedded Linux in some fashion. Linux won ages ago. It’s not on the desktop because it doesn’t need to be. It’s everywhere else.

Jassin000

Linux a failed product? It might not be as visible as Windows in the desktop computer space, but this makes it a failure? The goal of any open source software is wide spread adoption, not branding. Its not a profitable product because it was never for sale in the first place. Likewise Android exists to drive traffic home to Google. Even if handsets retired the Android logo (very unlikely based on current sales figures) Google has little to fear, the traffic is still flowing, the search giant is still profiting. You made one good point, Amazon is trying to cut Google out of the picture with the Fire. Will it work? I can’t speak for everyone, but I was going to buy a Amazon tablet just to root it and get a port of CM7 running. So I say thanks Amazon for cheap hardware, and no thanks to the crippled version of Android its shipping with.

Pete

“It was going to herald in a new era of desktop computing and conquer Microsoft in the 80s, claimed fanboys. Of course, no such thing happened.”

Linux didn’t exist until 1991.

AK

Conquer Microsoft in the 80’s? Linux came out in 1991. Only way to you take out Microsoft in the 80’s would be using a Linux power time machine and erasing Gates out of history.

David H

Well written article, I would like to know who said linux was going to take over Windows in the 80’s, or ever, on the desktop. I see you said the 80’s was a typo, but that was two days ago.

mthand

Interesting point of view. Thanks for sharing it.
But I think in the end, the openness of Android will be the reason for its success. I think it has a very postive future ahead.

cjastram

Why do you believe that the extreme fragmentation of Android is a weakness? Diversity is good security. Imagine if the HTC bug affected every handset and tablet! If Amazon builds a custom version of Android for those devices, the free marketplace will either approve (and features will migrate to other Android editions) or disapprove (and it will go on fire sale). So far, the market approves.

Also, every Android sale is a Linux sale. Android IS Linux. Linux grows by a gradual creep which becomes an unstoppable flood over a long period of time. Android does the same.

It is BECAUSE of customizers such as Amazon that Android grows ever more popular, not IN SPITE of!

If you look at any area in which Linux is growing, it looks hopeless. Impossible. Full of pitfalls which will surely destroy it. Impractical. Unusable. Bound by its own shortcomings. But as each problem is surmounted, and each challenge met, Linux gradually becomes more and more capable.

In other words, the problems you see that now appear to stand squarely in the way, will become nonsensical dust in the long distance by the time 18 months pass. That’s just how Linux grows.

cej102937

RollsEyes

All I know is I get all my technology insights from health analysts!

Ivan Weasel Head

Adding this dns entry to my /etc/hosts as 10.30.0.0
This is the least factual pile of tat I have accidently wasted more than 3 minutes of my life on since 2003.
If your so scared build a vanilla version of android for your device from the free opensource and then you can put your tinfoil hat back in its box – a box I suspect has an Apple logo on it.

jon

Android is a Linux distribution. It simply has a different userspace stack than a “desktop” distribution. And like any other distro, it can be heavily modified and an alternate piece of softare can be used in a layer of the stack.

Besides, linux is everywhere behind the scenes.
The PS3 uss a Linux kernel, most cable boxes, several network routers, and the majority of websites are running on Linux servers. The NYSE is ran on Linux. 8/10 of the worlds fastest supercomputers run Linux.

I certainly wouldn’t call Linux a failed product. Even if I had not been running one flavor of Linux or another since 1997.

gadgety

Interesting read. I hope the future brings some brand that allow me be just about anonymous in that cloud world, or at least allows me to control what info I release. Yep, that will be the new luxury item of the future. Anonymity.

fab

so..while android continues to grow…into irrelevance..then ios will be long forgotten… it’s amazing how many articles of so called experts appear everyday just to write something against the flow, just to get some attention.

Andrew

So if Android is going to “downfall into irrelevance”, what are Samsung, HTC, Motorola, LG, and other non-Apple manufacturers going to do for an OS? Apple likely will not license iOS on those phones. Are you thinking we are going to move into a world where everyone carries and iPhone (and perhaps also wears black turtlenecks and bluejeans to work)?

Equating Linux with Android misses a few obvious points, starting with the fact that very few computers are sold preloaded with one of the Linux distributions – however, very many phones are sold preloaded with Android variants. It also misses the fact that getting an operating system for a phone is significantly more difficult than for a computer – you can’t simply reload your iPhone with a new one (unlike your Droid, which you have limited choices, or even your Mac, where you can completely wipe OSX off of it and load Windows or many Linux variants).

I’m afraid you appear to be very under-researched in this area of technology. Stick to health policy analysis.

Trusttheman85

You make a solid argument about Amazon basically snubbing Google out of its own open source baby, and how the success can possibly have others follow suit, Which can have negative effects on Android as a whole. But Android as a brand drifting into obscurity seems highly highly unlikely, and honestly a ridiculous notion. Yes technically “Android” is nothing more then a utility, but to say Android is worthless as a brand to build upon, really makes question weather this article is just for sensationalism. The phrase “Android device” has become a huge branding for many. Enough to where competition has chosen to take legal action to halt innovation.

Amazon has its own reasons for trying to create its own stake as a brand, so i can see there reasoning for there move. But trust me, many people will still be branding it an “android device”

Phil

You can tell when its close to iPhone release time. The Android hit articles pick up.

Tony

Amazon redefining Android. Wouldn’t that be true for anyone who chooses to use the OS? Samsung, Sony, Motorola…. I think that Android becoming Linux is streching it a bit. The function of Linux in the 90’s to the functions of android today are vastly different. I do agree that the some of the concepts of both OS’s are similar. Android will continue to thrive in our new digital age. Considering the advancements, and prices being dropped, then cap it off with online tutorials on how to “root” (hack) your android. I think Android will probably make us all Androids in the next few years – outpacing Apple because of the very reason you outline in your well written peice. It’s openness.

John Harrington, Jr.

Has anyone heard about the tremendous security threat that comes with using an HTC Android device? If you use an EVO 3D, EVO 4G, Thunderbolt, EVO Shift 4G, MyTouch 4G Slide, a Sensation, or other HTC Android device, you should read up fast before your information falls into the wrong hands: http://bit.ly/nz5hsh

justchecking

This is not an adroid issue per se – it is a supplier issue – this flaw is inherent in HTC’s implementation of Android, and not an Android issue at all – just wanted to clarify that..

ML

“ultimately this will be Android’s downfall into irrelevance”

What exactly do you mean by irrelevance? Do you mean that Android is going away and will not be a major OS 10-20 years down the road?

And sorry, but why is a health policy analyst writing about Android? I hate to say it, but this article writes a lot about what is wrong with android, which there is some validity to, but it omits many critical facts on the other side of it. To state that android will be irrelevant just sounds like an ignorant view.

Ryan Sutton

Which fanboys thought Linux was going to over take Microsoft in the 80s? Last I checked Linux didn’t even exist until 1991.

Phil

So what did you mean to type then? I had not even seen a big focus on the Linux desktop until the mid 00’s. The focus was on servers.

tinotino

It’s more like Android is the new Windows XP. Its the only OS that can and will duplicate XP staggering marketshare and dominance.

What Android is doing has nothing to do with Linux’s traditional server market.

boredsysadm

The fact Fire skips native Android Browser doesn’t change a thing: Still users will use html5 optimized web version of gmail and use google for searches – one way or another google will get information about these people even on fire.

John S. Wilson

Thanks for reading. That may be true. But if folks use Fire’s Silk browser then Google apparently won’t be getting as much data about users as they normally would. There’s still some debate about this but more than one engineer has stated it. Additionally, why use Google Music when you can use Amazon which will be baked in? That’s going to be the true test: whether the convenience of Amazon’s services overshadows that of Google’s.

@TheCeeJayLouis

well, you make fine and valid points. however, that is not to say all of this erl happen for certain. Android certainly has potential and publicity than Linux ever did and Amazon’s lone gunman act doesn’t necessarily spell real trouble for Google.

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