Gmail is an Android open source project

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The Android operating system was originally developed by a group of programmers around the American Andy Rubin. To this end, he founded Android Inc. in 2003.

Google bought the company two years later. In 2007, Google presented the first finished version of Android and released it under a free software license. However, Google is not completely relinquishing Android.

If software is published under a free software license, anyone can read, use and distribute the program code. The license regulates what is allowed in its use and what conditions there are.

Android: At its core, an open operating system

Google decided on the Apache 2.0 licensing model for Android. This is recognized by the Free Software Foundation, but is considered lax. Every person and every company can use, change and distribute the software.

But it is not a "copyleft license". This means that those who use the program code and develop it further do not necessarily have to publish this further development as free software, but can keep their new code secret. This is exactly what companies like Samsung or Sony that make devices do.

They take the free Android code, customize it for their devices, change the design and some functions, and sell the device with the operating system pre-installed. The code of these adapted Android versions usually remains under lock and key.

Who decides on new functions?

The programming work was not done with the first Android version in 2007. Since then, Android has been continuously developed and improved, adapted for new devices and optimized for new sensors. Who decides which new functions will come and which not?

In 2007, Google also founded the “Open Handset Alliance” (OHA). It is a consortium made up of telecommunications, marketing, hardware and software companies. It is run by Google, and the name OHA is also a Google brand.

The OHA and Google operate as the authors of the Android program code. Officially, for example, the code is worked out in cooperation with the device manufacturers.

According to insider reports, new Android versions or updates are written internally by Google employees and only then published. It is not known to what extent the members of the OHA are involved in the content.

The Android Open Source Project (AOSP)

When a new version is ready, it will be published on the "Android Open Source Project" (AOSP) platform. Interested programmers and companies can then view the code, submit comments and change requests and make their own contributions. The so-called AOSP project managers, who are usually employees of Google, decide what will and will not be accepted by these suggestions.

In most cases, Google employees have the last word on what is in the official Android code - but other interested parties can make suggestions. Google no longer has any control over who then uses this program code and what he does with it.

Contrary to what is often shown, Google cannot charge license fees from manufacturers such as Samsung so that they can install the code on their devices. The Apache 2.0 license prohibits this. Google can also not set any conditions as to how the code may be changed.

Nothing works without Google apps

The crux of the matter lies in the name: If manufacturers want to use the name Android, self-determination is over. Because the name and the logo are protected as trademarks and belong to Google LLC.

If you sell a mobile device and advertise that Android runs on it, you have to do business with Google. That's why independent operating systems like LineageOS never have the word Android in their names.

Even more important than the brand name, however, are the Google apps, above all the Google Play store. Because the Android operating system only unfolds its full benefits when it can access the Play Store, which users can use to get apps. Google also delivers important security updates via the Play Store.

Google has kept the Play Store and the app that goes with it to itself. It is not part of the "free" part of Android. Anyone who uses the Play Store or other Google apps is accessing proprietary software from Google.

If manufacturers want to deliver their devices pre-installed with these apps, Google will dictate the conditions.

EU Commission vs. Google

It was these conditions that led the Commission of the European Union (EU) to come to a harsh judgment on July 18, 2018 after years of examination. It imposed a record fine of 4.34 billion euros on Google for violating EU antitrust law.

The commission criticized, among other things, that Google unlawfully bundles its own apps: Device manufacturers who want a license for the Google Play Store had to preinstall at least Google search and the Chrome browser app.

Another point of criticism: According to the EU Commission's findings, Google tried to prevent device manufacturers from supporting other Android versions. Anyone wanting to do business with the IT group had to guarantee by contract that they would not sell any smartphones with Android operating systems that Google had not licensed.

The commission had given the parent company Google LLC 90 days to end the criticized practices - with the threat of levying further fines. Google finally had to bow to this and has now significantly relaxed its requirements for the use of Google apps. Companies can now sell devices with other Android versions and Google search and Chrome no longer have to be preinstalled in every case.

For this, the group has announced that it will require license fees for the use of its apps from the manufacturers in the future. It is not known how high these fees are.

Google appealed against the fine in October 2018.

Google apps and features

Google has thus ensured that other Google apps are installed on every official Android device in addition to the Google Play Store.

All Google apps contact Google servers and transfer user data. How often and how extensively this happens is not always clear. In addition to the clearly recognizable Google apps such as Google Maps or Gmail, there are also some that many do not even know that they belong to Google.

The most important of these are:

  • YouTube: The video portal is a Google subsidiary.
  • Chrome: Google's own browser.
  • Photos: Google's photo manager that automatically syncs pictures with the Google account.
  • On some devices, at least those from Google itself (Nexus and Pixel), the apps "Calendar", "Contacts" and "Phone" are also from Google.

There are also numerous functions from Google that are not even perceived as an app.

The most important of these are:

  • Google location services: When you switch on the GPS, you will be automatically asked whether you want to activate the "more precise" location detection. This is a service that queries the location of Wi-Fi and cellular networks in the area in a Google database. It can be assumed that Google records the queries and can assign them to individual users.
  • Google Play Services: This app manages and coordinates all other Google apps. Since this app plays a central role in the transmission of data to Google, we dedicate a separate article to it.
  • Some functions are only installed on some Google devices (e.g. Nexus), such as the keyboard app and the launcher.

Google services in third party apps

But other apps can also integrate Google services. The permissions required for this are not displayed during the installation. But you can see them if you look at the manifest file.

The most common uses are:

  • Google Cloud Messaging: Apps that want to send so-called push messages to their users almost always use the Google service. Push messages appear directly on the screen and can overlay other apps. For example, the notification that new mail has arrived is a push message. The service from Google is considered to be particularly battery-saving. The messages run through a Google server.
  • Google Maps: Many services that offer location-based information incorporate Google Maps. For example, the banking app, which also shows the nearest ATM on the card. In this case, Google will also find out when and where you looked for an ATM.
  • Google Analytics: Many apps integrate this module from Google and use it to send user data to Google for analysis.
  • Doubleclick: Google's own advertising network. Many apps display advertisements over it.
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