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09 September 2011, 16:57

Is Android forking – and does it matter?

by Glyn Moody

Android seems to be having a difficult time at the moment, but, far from being a sign of increasing problems, Glyn Moody argues that the forking of the mobile operating system by the likes of Amazon and Baidu could work in Google's favour.

It is hardly a secret that Android is going through a rather rough patch at the moment. There are multiple allegations of patent infringement against manufacturers using Android, and Oracle has accused Google of infringing its patents and copyright with the code. And to make things even more complicated, Google hopes to acquire Motorola, which means that it will soon be competing directly with the other companies using Android, unsettling the latter even more.

But Android is (mostly) open source, and there's a time-honoured response to problems with open source projects: you fork them. And that, it seems, is what Amazon intends to do with Android if this report is to be believed:

Amazon has forked Android to build their own version for the Kindle. Simply put: it looks nothing like the Android you’re used to seeing.

The interface is all Amazon and Kindle. It’s black, dark blue, and a bunch of orange. The main screen is a carousel that looks like Cover Flow in iTunes which displays all the content you have on the device. This includes books, apps, movies, etc. Below the main carousel is a dock to pin your favorite items in one easy-to-access place. When you turn the device horizontally, the dock disappears below the fold.

My understanding is that the Kindle OS was built on top of some version of Android prior to 2.2. And Amazon will keep building on top of that of that over time. In other words, this won’t be getting “Honeycomb” or “Ice Cream Sandwich” — or if it does, users will never know it because that will only be the underpinnings of the OS. Any visual changes will be all Amazon.

They are not working with Google on this. At all.

Now, some have argued that this is not a fork, but merely a new front end on top of standard Android code. It's true that we can't be certain until full details emerge, but Amazon is such a big and ambitious company that I don't think it's interested in being just another Android manufacturer. As it has with previous Kindles, it will surely want to control all aspects of the ecosystem, and that includes the underlying code.

While Amazon's Android fork is still at the level of rumour, this seems more definite:

China's top search engine Baidu Inc offered a glimpse of its upcoming mobile operating system and launched a new mobile application platform on Friday aimed at bolstering its presence in the increasingly competitive mobile web market.

The platform, named Baidu Yi, will enable third-party application developers to create apps such as games, maps and other tools that they can distribute in a similar way to Apple Inc's App store.

Baidu Yi is modeled on Google's Android mobile operating system and will be rolled out to mobile devices in the future.

Although less well known in the West than the likes of Amazon, Baidu is probably as important, at least in the rapidly-growing Chinese market, and so its decision to move away from a “pure” Android solution and to offer its own fork is noteworthy. Baidu is not only a very ambitious company, it is the direct competitor of Google, at least in the search sector, which it dominates in China. It is extremely unlikely that it would be content to play second fiddle to its rival, or let it determine its development; this suggests Baidu Yi will develop into a full fork.

Next: Alibaba to produce smartphone

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