For most people, Android -- Google's open-source operating system for smartphones and tablets -- means gadgets that look and feel sort of like Apple's, but were made by different companies. And for some people, like the programmers who made the CyanogenMod custom firmware, it means being able to make their Android devices do exactly what they want them to.
For the wireless carriers, Android means gadgets that look and feel sort of like Apple's, but that have their logos on them, along with apps that you can't uninstall. But some people are taking Android's open-source code and open platform, and making things that wouldn't be possible otherwise.
Most Android tablets, like the upcoming Asus Transformer Prime, just use Android by itself, in an attempt by the manufacturer to copy the iPad. Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com, however, have used Android's open-source programming code to create a customized experience for people who buy their e-readers.
Besides making it easier to buy e-books and other wares from their catalogs, the two companies' tablets use a simplified version of Android, which hardly bears a resemblance to the original unless you know where to look. The apps are even custom-made, although both companies have their own app stores where Android developers can publish their wares.
Both companies' tablets are selling millions of units, in contrast to the few hundred thousand tablets sold by "Android tablet" manufacturers.
Most wireless carriers throw in "customizations" you can't uninstall, on high-end smartphones with sky-high monthly bills. Republic Wireless is a startup that's offering unlimited everything plans for $19 a month, contract-free, on a single smartphone model (the LG Optimus S) running an up-to-date version of Android with no extra carrier apps.
The way it works is through Republic's "Hybrid Calling" app. It routes phone calls and texts through Wi-Fi whenever possible, and uses Sprint's network when necessary. The open-source Android code, and the open Android platform, make it possible for Republic to try this experimental service.
If Republic Wireless' goal is to compete with the carriers, the Serval Project's is to bypass them altogether ... when necessary. It "enables mobile communications no matter what your circumstance," even during a major disaster which knocks out all cellphone towers, by using Android smartphones running the Serval Mesh app as an ad-hoc wireless network.
The app is only available for Android.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.