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The Inevitable Forking of Android Begins

Yahoo Contributor Network

When people and businesses become dissatisfied with most computer software, like Windows or Photoshop, they have only one choice: Switch to something else.

Not so with software that's open-source, like Google's Android operating system that powers smartphones and tablets. It's like a restaurant that publishes its recipes, and if you know how to cook -- or in this case, program -- you're free to make it yourself, or change it however you like.

For most people, this isn't a really big selling point. We don't know how to reprogram our smartphones, and there's not a whole lot we'd want to make them do if we could. But for the companies that make Android smartphones and tablets? It's starting to look like a better and better idea. Which is probably why so many companies, like Baidu in China, are starting to "fork" Android into their own versions.

Why the dissatisfaction with Android?

On the surface of it, this seems like a ridiculous thing to ask. Android's been a huge boon to most of these companies. It saved Motorola from its downward tailspin, and helped HTC thrive and stay relevant after the iPhone came out. Samsung and LG couldn't make iPhone clones without Android, either.

The problem is, these companies are essentially betting their lives on a product that comes from another company: Google. Because even though Android's code is open-source, to get access to essential Android apps like the Android Market and Google Maps you need to have Google's permission. That means letting Google call the shots for some things, and supposedly it also means using Google's services instead of a cheaper competitor's.

Some companies, like Barnes and Noble and Amazon, don't see this as a problem. They're making things like the Nook Color and Amazon's upcoming Kindle tablet, without Google's permission or apps. Their e-reader tablets don't need them, and by not worrying about Google's guidelines they become free to experiment with simpler and more streamlined user interfaces ... essentially, their own forks of Android. But smartphone companies haven't gone this route, until now.

Why the change?

The big catalyst seems to be Google's attempt to acquire Motorola Mobility. If Google owns an Android device manufacturer, that shoots down the illusion that it doesn't play favorites. And it means Motorola will get early access to Android, while everyone else gets the scraps.

It should come as no surprise, then, that right after Google and Motorola's announcement the South Korean government started urging Samsung and LG to help it make an all-new OS. One which may well use Android code, since it's, well, free. Meanwhile, China's Baidu search engine is working on its own version of Android, while HTC in Taiwan is building HTC Sense on top of Android.

With nothing to unify these Android forks, it looks like they're just going to split up and fulfill their own niches ... unless they can learn to work together.

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