Posted by:Monica Samuel October 18th, 2011

Android has grown from strength to strength over the last few years, with the open-source operating system being adopted by leading handset manufacturers including Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and LG. Android has also entered the tablet arena with the Honeycomb operating system but doesn’t have a stronghold there yet.

A lot of Android’s popularity has to do with its open-source nature. Android is developed and distributed by the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) headed by Google. It is supported by the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of over 84 members including leading hardware, software, and telecommunication companies that stand by open standards for mobile devices.

Most of Google’s Android code is distributed under the Apache license which is a free software license. The language is based on open-source Linux with elements written in C, running on an application framework that includes Java-compatible libraries based on Apache Harmony. It uses the Dalvik VM to run Java code. Android developers can take Android source code and use it in custom application development for mobile devices. They are not limited to what one handset manufacturer makes available to users.

Android currently accounts for 43.7% of the US smartphone market and 27% of the tablet arena. One of Android’s biggest problems has been fragmentation. Android handsets and tablets are available in various form factors, making it challenging for developers to create apps optimized for different screen sizes and processing power. Google hopes to fix this with Ice Cream Sandwich – the unified platform for smartphones and tablets.

Another problem that developers face on Android is the clutter on Android Market. Developers find iOS apps a more dependable source of income even if the approval policies are more stringent. In fact, these very policies ensure higher quality of apps in the App Storeas compared to Android Market and developers see their apps getting greater visibility there too.

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In recent times, Android’s open-source quality has been questioned by many industry experts. Google exercises a high degree of control over what handset manufacturers can do with the Android code. At the same time, some manufacturers do not release the code for their customization of Android. Samsung does it but HTC is more reserved.

Google took everyone by surprise by not releasing the source code of its tablet-optimized Honeycomb version released in 2011, adding more fuel to the fire. It justified the move saying Honeycomb was ‘rushed out’ (It was.). Instead, Google plans to release the code for its next big version – Ice Cream Sandwich, expected to release this month or the next.

As ResearchDirector Andreas Constantinou puts it, ‘… anyone can have Android in their own color as long as it’s black.’ He believes Android’s successful run has more to do with network operators’ search for cheaper alternatives (versus Apple), the desire of manufacturers and network operators to differentiate, and Qualcomm’s ready-to-use reference design than its open-source quality.

Bottom line: Android may not be as open-source as many believe but it has led to glorious innovation in mobile devices.

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