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Android customisability

The open source nature of Android means that it can be modified for very specific uses. That makes it ideal to serve vertical markets. In fact, we've already seen this with Linux, which has become the embedded system of choice powering many highly-specialised digital devices. Cheap tablet hardware is the next stage of this evolution.

Just as customised versions of Linux have become ubiquitous in small household devices, so customised Android solutions could become standard on dedicated tablets that replace one of the commonest tools in business: forms and clipboards. This is not to say that we will be entering that fabled land of the paperless office: paper will still exist as an object, it's just that we won't carry it around on a clipboard.

Android tablets with specs like the £50 model mentioned above are perfect for this task. They can be customised physically – ruggedised versions, waterproof systems etc. – and in terms of the simplified interface they adopt. That allows designs to be low-cost and easy to use. Because there are so many vertical markets – as many as there are business sectors – this will be good news for programmers and designers working in the Android world, who will find themselves in great demand.

But there's a big downside to all this. Such customised systems are likely to be as locked down as they can be – the last thing either manufacturers or companies want is for users to start fiddling with the settings or installing their own software. As a result, the apps that run on such systems are likely to be closed source, since that's the way vertical markets tend to work.

Such systems will also expose a persistent problem with the open source development methodology. While big and general projects find it relatively easy to attract interested developers, smaller, more targeted solutions tend not to thrive as free software.

The way around this is to create a common framework for such vertical tablet applications. That's a big project that coders might want to join, since it addresses general programming issues, rather than trying to find the best way to write software for butchers, bakers or candlestick makers. Creating a series of free components that can be used in such a framework would provide a strong incentive for vertical market suppliers to go open source rather than closed source. They could still add their own customisation as a final layer to the components if they wanted to.

The question, of course, is how to do this. Although coders could simply come together to start working on such a framework, that probably wouldn't be the best way to address the specific needs of vertical system providers. This suggests some input from the intended market would be useful, but coordination will be tricky.

One organisation with plenty experience in this area is the Eclipse Foundation; indeed, in some senses, this project could be thought of as a continuation of its current work. The original Eclipse project was kickstarted with a big donation from IBM, and something similar would be needed here. The obvious donor is Google, which would be one of the prime beneficiaries from a broader use of its Android system. It might not benefit directly, since such vertical systems are unlikely to be displaying many Google AdWords, but indirectly it would gain from the enrichment and extension of the Android ecosystem.

It's still early days for the tablet market, which is why we see only generic systems. The falling price of hardware, coupled with the customisability of Android will soon change that. Apple's current dominance of this market is not the real threat here: more dangerous is the likelihood that for emerging sectors Android's relative openness might be lost under layers of purely closed-source customisations.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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