The Proprietarization of Android – Google Play Services and Apps

Android has a market share of ~70% for mobile devices which keeps growing. It is based on Linux and the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), so mostly Free Software. The problem is that every device you can buy is additionally stuffed full with proprietary software. These programs and apps are missing the essential four freedoms that all software should have. They serve all but your interests and are typically designed to spy on your every tap.

robotFor this reason, the Free Software Foundation Europe started the Free Your Android campaign in 2012 that shows people how they can install F-Droid to get thousands of apps that respect their freedom. It also shows how it is possible to install alternative versions of Android such as Replicant that are either completely Free Software or in the case of OmniROM, CopperheadOS or CyanogenMod mostly Free Software. Many apps have been liberated and the situation for running (more) free versions of Android has been improved tremendously. You can even buy phones pre-installed with Replicant now.

However, there is an opposite trend as well: The growing proprietarization of Android. There have always been Google-specific proprietary apps that came pre-installed with phones, but many essential apps were free and part of AOSP. Over the past years app after app has been replaced by a non-free pendant. This arstechnica article from 2013 has many examples such as the calender, camera and music app. Even the keyboard has been abandoned and useful features such as swipe-typing are only available if you run non-free software.

GPSWhat Google did with the apps, it does even with basic functions and APIs of the Android operating system. They are being moved into the Google Play Services. These proprietary software libraries are pre-installed on all official Android devices and developers are pushed to use them for their apps. So even if an app is otherwise Free Software, if it includes the Google Play Services, it is non-free and will not run anymore on Android devices that do not have the Play Services installed.

One prominent example of that is the crypto-messenger Signal. It uses the Play Services to receive Push notifications from Firebase Cloud Messaging (formally Google Cloud Messaging) to minimize battery usage, but doesn’t work if the Play services are missing. And that is more common than you might think and does not only affect people running Replicant, but also people who like to use Signal on their Blackberry, Jolla or Amazon device. Like with the proprietary Google apps, you need a license from Google if you want to install the Play Services. To get this license, you need to conform with their guidelines which many manufactures don’t want or can not do.

So the proprietarization of Android effectively cripples other versions of Android and makes them increasingly useless. It strengthens Google’s control over Android and makes life harder for competitors and the Free Software community.

But more control, more users for the own products and thus more revenue are not the only reasons for what Google is doing. Almost all Android devices are not being sold by Google, but by OEMs and these are notoriously bad at updating Android on the devices they’ve already sold leaving gaping security holes open and endangering their customers. Still Google is getting the bad press and increasingly bad reputation for it. Since it can’t force the OEMs to provide updates, it moves more and more parts of Android into external libraries it can silently upgrade itself on people’s devices. Android is just becoming a hollow shell for a Google OS.

Still, millions of people have Android devices already and many more will have Android devices in the future. So I think it is time well spent increasing those people’s freedom. Even though Android is more and more crippled it is still a solid base, the community can built upon without having to do their own mobile operating system from scratch without the resources of a large multi-national company.

Free Your Android

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