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Why Android houses should give Google the 'fork you'

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Open...and Shut As details leak about just how closed Google's Android development can be, the billion-dollar question is why mobile handset manufacturers bother to play ball with Mountain View at all.

It's not so much Google's practice of keeping Android development closed for prolonged periods, but rather its favoritism toward certain partners that should rankle manufacturers – yet, apparently, it doesn't. Or not enough for Samsung et al. to dump Android for WebOS, Windows, or another option.

This could be about to change. Amazon's new Android-based tablet may demonstrate to Android licensees a way to have their Android ... and fork it, too.

Early on, it was understandable that handset manufacturers such as Motorola and Samsung clung to Android. They were locked out of the Apple ecosystem and wanted to band together with a big brand. Google's Android ticked both those boxes.

Over time, however, some blemishes have appeared in this story. For example: Microsoft. Apparently incapable of winning with its product development team, Redmond has sought to make money in mobile with its legal team. Android has been a constant target, with Acer and Viewsonic most recently signing up for Microsoft's "witness protection program". In exchange for royalties, Microsoft agrees not to sue them.

This takes away some of Android's allure (surely Microsoft's hope), and further crimps the profits of Android licensees, which are already paltry. Try as they might, they can't seem to generate sufficient "wow" with their hardware/Android combinations to muster much brand loyalty and, in return, chunkier profit margins.

Making matters worse, Google's top tablet-market Android licensee, Samsung, is reportedly struggling to sell its Android-based tablets. Lenovo claims that its rival has only sold 20,000 of the 1 million GalaxyTabs shipped. Meanwhile, Apple can barely keep up with iPad demand.

What to do?

Well, hardware manufacturers could try another OS, as Nokia is doing with Microsoft's Windows Phone. As Funambol CEO Fabrizio Capobianco suggests Samsung could try with WebOS.

This tactic, however, only works if it overcomes the fatal flaw in the Android model: control of the OS. Just as Windows turned PC manufacturers into commodity players, selling hardware to complement its OS, so, too, does Android take center stage while hardware manufacturers become OS accessor-makers.

A better route may be Amazon's, which is to take Android and fork it. This, as Techcrunch points out, has enabled Amazon to control the UI and everything else about the user experience. Yes, this requires the handset manufacturers to become highly proficient in software, something they historically have not been, and it also means they give up on Google's swelling population of Android apps, which are increasingly downloaded even more than iOS apps.

But if the game is hardware-plus-software-plus-cloud, as defined by Apple, then there might not be an option.

Google seems to have stepped into this ring with its acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Now Amazon is playing the same game, and with Google's Android as its foundation, along with its Kindle hardware and its cloud services.

Indeed, Amazon appears to be the first serious Apple competitor, as Capobianco points out in a separate post.

Sure, Samsung and the other remaining Android licensees could opt for webOS or another mobile OS, but they already know Android. The trick is that they will need to come to know it much better than they do, and own it.

Only as they take control of Android, as Amazon is, can they hope to compete as individual competitors, rather than simply as an Android ecosystem, against Apple. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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