Why Google Android software is not as free or open as some think

“The idea that Google’s Android mobile software is both ‘free’ and open-source is so often repeated that it is virtually an article of faith online. There’s only one problem: neither is strictly true,” Charles Arthur and Samuel Gibbs report for The Guardian. “While the basic Android software is indeed available for free, and can be downloaded, compiled and changed by anyone, it doesn’t include the apps that make up Google’s mobile services – such as Maps, Gmail, and crucially Google Play, which allows people to connect to the online store where they can download apps. Without them, a device has only minimal functionality.”

“To get the key apps, a manufacturer needs a ‘Google Mobile Services’ (GMS) licence. GMS licences are issued on a per-model basis. While Google does not charge a fee for the licence, one of the integral steps in the licence-application process requires payment to authorised Android-testing factories,” Arthur and Gibbs report. “These factories, which include Foxconn and Archos, charge a fee for carrying out the testing required to obtain a GMS licence, which the Guardian understands is negotiated on a case-by-case, per-manufacturer basis.”

“The source said Google and its testing partners were being intentionally vague about the fact that a cost is associated with acquisition of a GMS licence, even if the licence itself is free. ‘It is a lot of money they make, but you can’t see it anywhere because that would tarnish their ‘Android open-source’ karma,’ the source said,” Arthur and Gibbs report. “The idea that Android is ‘open source’ is partially true: the source code for the software is available online, via Google’s servers, and anyone can download it and make changes – as Amazon, for example, has done to create its own version for its Kindle line of tablets. But unlike the vast majority of widely used open-source projects such as Linux, MySQL, PHP or Python, which welcome outside contributors, only people working inside Google can make changes that will become part of the future direction of the software. Device manufacturers who want to get the upcoming version of Android have to wait for it to become available from Google’s servers.”

Read more in the full article here.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “David G.” for the heads up.]

Related articles:
Google’s iron grip on Android: Controlling ‘open’ source by any means necessary – October 31, 2013
Microsoft, Oracle, over a dozen others call for EU probe of Google over Android – April 9, 2013
How Google controls Android: digging deep into the Skyhook filings – May 12, 2011
Google used Android compatibility as ‘club’ against Skyhook – May 9, 2011


  1. Anyone who has ever tried one of those crappy no-name tablets (such as KOBY or similar) knows this. The crappy manufacturers don’t bother with this “testing” fee (an obvious extortion racket). They slap together whatever version of Android would run on their hardware and bundle some of the freely-available apps for e-mail and web browsing. To go around the Android Play store, they install this GetJar store app, which has a few hundred free apps to choose from. Needless to say, very few meaningful apps are there. Luckily, one of those meaningful apps is Amazon’s App Store, which can then be used to access thousands of apps, so the selection is much better. Still, some of the most important apps, in addition to all Google apps (mail, maps, calendar, Earth, search, Chrome, Play Store, etc) cannot be installed.

    A non-scientific comparison revealed that tablets with same or very similar hardware specs differ in price depending on whether they have authorised Google apps or not. This price difference is never less than $30, and often even greater.

    The irony is that a pretty high percentage of buyers of these ultra-cheapo tablets with no Google apps are basically doing this so that they can root the thing, replace original system with a customised ROM that contains Google Apps and essentially avoid paying for the Google’s testing racket.

    I know there are plenty out there who love this sort of rebellious, stick-it-to-the-man approach. I’m pretty positive that eventually, as such people grow older, busier with their careers and their lives, they no longer bother wasting time on all this and instead skip the Google experience altogether and go for the real thing (Apple).

      1. Do your own research, jackass. Just look up Eric Schmidt as a member of the Apple BOD, and what Google’s Android phone looked like prior to the introduction of the iPhone. They stole iOS plain and simple.

  2. This is news?

    I have no problem with Google licensing its software for a fair price. Maps and some of its other tools are really powerful.

    What I do have a problem with is Google’s data-mining of user data without clearly telling the user how/when/where/what will be taken, nor whom it is sold. That’s reprehensible.

    Would be better for the MDN community to register valid complaints instead of taking issue with licensing — a perfectly reasonable business model that Apple also does. Airplay, for example. Nothing wrong with profiting from your innovation.

  3. I have never understood free and open source terminology with regards to operating systems by M$ and others. Maybe others OS such as Unix/Linux, but not M$ yet it seems that was the big difference between anything Apple and anything M$. In the end, M$ OS was just as locked up and proprietary as Apple (and more expensive).

  4. Android did not and never has been open source. Its a sham for the gullible and ignorant.
    1. Google does not allow contribution to Android source code.
    2. Pre-release versions are not provided.
    3. Not all source code is released.
    4. You cannot release an Android device with Google services unless you pay Google and they have sued and destroyed several small companies over this.

    Apple has probably released more open source to the public than Google. The best know would be webkit which almost all browsers including Google Chrome, are based on.
    You can see the list of Apple open source here;

    Apple OS is FAR from closed.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.