18/02/2009

Why Android is scary

Android is an open source operating system based on Linux that runs on phones, mobile internet devices etc. It comes under the auspices of the Open Handset Alliance, but it's really Google.

Android of course isn't completely open source, it cant be (more on that later). Lots of Android is open source including the application layer bits and a lot of the core too. Google do try and make the open bits easily available and those bits can be accessed via source code.

The bits that will not be open sourced are the low level drivers, the bits that "talk" GSM (or CDMA or 3G), the baseband bits. They cant be. In order for a phone to be certified it has to go through an approval process (which in the US means going through FCC approval). Part of the approval is ensuring the network bits are certified and that means users cant play with them. It's amazing what a handset can do to a basestation or network if you know what stuff to send it. Mobile Network Operators don't want users being able to reconfigure bits of the network.

The big issue for operators and Android is people hacking it and accessing the bits they shouldn't. Most of the low level stuff is protected, but if a user can become "root" or the superuser they have access to most of the operating system and potentially have the ability to modify parts of the OS they normally wouldn't be able to. The G1 has already been hacked giving people a root shell.

Having access to the low level parts of the OS is scary, not for the users but for the operators. They don't want you messing with the network or playing with the network protocols. It's really a big issue for them.

Most phone operating systems offer the same control, Symbian only exposes the upper layers as does Windows Mobile. This is even more apparent in the iPhone where the SDK just lets you develop application on top of the OS.

Android's open sourceness may actually be it's downfall in terms of slow adoption by MNOs.
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