Is Android really open source? And is it even important?

Are you using Android because it’s made of Linux? Then you are not alone here. Many open source desktop users first picked up an Android phone because of the appeal of a Linux-based mobile operating system. This is probably why many of you are reading this now.

Android has enjoyed widespread adoption and that has resulted in some complaints. This is only partly due to the desire of occasional Linux users to buck the mainstream. The bigger problem is what phone manufacturers, carriers, and even Google did with the operating system.

The fact is, every Android phone you pick up from the store is locked down and a fair amount of closed source code is running.

As a result, people who value open source ideals turn to Ubuntu Touch or Sailfish OS instead – and see with disappointment that none of them have been successful so far.

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

Is Android Open Source? Yes it is (technically)

Android has open source roots. The project began in 2005 under Android, Inc., which Google bought two years later. That same year, Google and several other companies founded the Open handset alliance, with Android being the main building block of this consortium.

Android is based on the Linux kernel, and like this complex code, most of the pieces are open source with some binary blobs to make things work with certain hardware. The core Android platform known as the Android open source project (AOSP) is available to everyone to do what they want.

OnePlus, Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, and many other manufacturers have done just that on phones and tablets. You are hardly alone.

Amazon brought Android to Kindle, LG to Smartwatches and NVIDIA to a game console. Companies are now delivering the operating system on their smart TVs. You can use Android for everything from point-and-shoot cameras to refrigerators.

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

Unlike iOS, people don’t have to pay anyone money to use Android in their product. And since the code is open, you can experiment and customize the software however you want.

Why doesn’t Android feel open source?

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

1. People are allowed to block open source code

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

The same goes for the code that comes with Samsung, OnePlus, and customizations from other manufacturers. Most of the apps you can get on Google Play are not open source whether or not they can be downloaded for free. Since this software is the bulk of what we see and use, Android ultimately feels like a closed source platform.

But people are allowed to create closed-source software that runs on Linux. Unless the developers copyleft the software, others can take the code and use it to create proprietary applications.

So what part of the Android platform is open source? Google publishes a lot of Android under Apache License version 2.0which prevents users from using the code to create restrictive products. Even though people did, Android still won’t shut down. Many people base their work on Android, which is proof of its success as an open source project.

2. The core development of Android is not community-driven

For the most part, Google is developing Android. Once or twice a year the company puts a bunch of new codes across a metaphorical wall that hobbyists and hardware makers are rushing to fit their stuff in.

Google then releases maintenance and security updates every month as it prepares for the next major release.

Many other well-known open source projects tend to seek more participation from the wider community. Red Hat may fund a fair amount of the work that goes into GNOME, but developers from all over the world contribute code.

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, has a lot of control over how this Linux distribution looks and feels. However, community members still have a say in which programs go into the app repositories or on some websites.

In comparison, Android is a pure Google product.

3. You are not in full control

Part of what attracts people to Linux and other open source operating systems is the freedom and control available. You can’t dive into the heart of a Windows or macOS computer and see what drives it. You may not understand most of the code on Linux, but you are free to tinker with more or less anything.

From a practical point of view, an Android mobile phone offers only slightly more freedom than an iPhone. You may be able to change the launcher, apply some extensive themes, and customize some features to suit your tastes. Even so, you can’t tinker with the underlying operating system without voiding your warranty.

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

But Android is really open source

And it’s not just open in name. There is a lot of evidence that Android is truly open and we can reap the tangible benefits.

1. Custom ROMs exist

Community-created ROMs based on AOSP provide Android users with alternatives to the software that ships on their devices. CyanogenMod, now referred to as LineageOS, ran on millions of Android smartphones. Out-of-the-box, the experience isn’t that much different from what you can get on a Pixel. Hell, that’s why a lot of people choose to flash a ROM in the first place.

LineageOS isn’t the only option out there, either. Many have risen and fallen over the years, like Paranoid Android and AOKP. In some ways, the custom ROM ecosystem is similar to the Linux distribution model. These ROMs are mostly the same, but projects use the same code and optimize it in different ways. This wouldn’t be possible if Android wasn’t open source itself.

2. The open source competitors are also dependent on Android

At the beginning of this post, we mentioned Sailfish OS and Ubuntu Touch as alternative open source mobile operating systems. The thing is, the teams behind these projects were using Android code in one way or another. Sailfish OS allows you to install Android apps directly, even though they are not Android based.

Before Ubuntu Touch there was Ubuntu for Android. There’s an incredible irony in 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 shipping companies may not want this, and it could void your warranty, but you have the freedom to do whatever you want with your hardware. You can root for administrative access, unlock the bootloader, or flash an alternative operating system.

These may not be Android’s advertised features, but they are there. And while the vast majority of people with Android devices don’t tinker with it this way, you would hardly be the only one doing it.

Millions of people love to be able to use their phones and tablets 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. Also, proprietary applications and services come and go, but open source software persists even if it’s unsupported. Free operating systems can also breathe life into well-functioning hardware, but companies have chosen not to.

And there is no shortage of ethical reasons, from deciding who has a say, what runs on which hardware, to discussing wealth, privacy and freedom.

With millions of people using mobile computers, people need to have options on desktops and laptops. Minding any of the above shouldn’t mean going without phones, tablets, and cool things with touchscreens.

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

An idea to give Android an open source feeling

You can use LineageOS and get your apps from F-Droid. This combination seems to be limiting when compared to what you get from Google Play. Still, it’s a more feature-rich experience than what competing open source operating systems are currently bringing to the table.

Open source supporters are still watching and hoping these alternatives will succeed. But while you wait for them to succeed, you can listen to podcasts, use GPS navigation, manage your local music library, and stay in touch with people who are now using a reliable and fast mobile device that is mostly open source software is performed.

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