Project Highlight – Replicant
I have been having some critical thoughts about Android and Google in the past year, and I am not alone. If you are one that is on the sidelines and uses an Android device in the most basic sense, you probably haven’t even noticed, and may never for quite some time. Google has been slowing taking control of core applications though some sneaky methods, and here is why you should care, and why Replicant may be the answer for the nerd and geek-alike.
If you read the above linked article, this will make a lot of sense to you. Let’s head back to the rosy beginning, when Android was fresh, new and very exciting. Android began as a very collaborative effort in the form of the Android Open Source Project, a.k.a AOSP. Times were good man, people were hugging, loving, and just plain getting along. People wanted to build something, and make something great. There was a common call to arms against Apple, the perceived evil overlord, threatening device lock in, forever (oh no!). We needed a plan, a protective layer to Google search, and that answer was Android.
The way it worked, is Google would develop features, push them to the AOSP version of Android and roll out the image to manufacturers for testing. This also enabled those using custom ROM images (alternative “mixes” of Android, often using a “pure” AOSP looking experience) to gain the benefits of Googles features, with the added custom features of the ROM maker. Popular ROMs today include Cyanogen Mod, AOKP, Paranoid Android, and more.
The current state of things:
Fast forward to today. Android is huge, REALLY huge, with astronomical market share (>80 percent) and dominance unheard of. Sure, Apple is still doing their thing, but a viable alternative now exists. Now where is the trouble in that? Behind the Oz curtain, my friend. Slowly, we are seeing the control of Android slip away from those most keen on improving the experience for others.
As Google updates core applications, they are in turn closing development off from others and effectively becoming “closed source” or “proprietary.” For example, when AOSP Search moved to “Google Search,” the AOSP version’s development ceased to exist. Poof, gone, done with, dead. Where this hurts AOSP devs and ROM makers, is they can no longer just provide the “native” search of camera app, as it will then be an outdated mess. This even likely had a lot to do with the head of the AOSP project flying the coop.
Ever wonder why you have some phone manufacturers shipping “bloat” with their phones (see: Samsung). The really reason for this is to prepare for the event that if Google cuts them off as an approved partner, they can fall back on their own SMS, Email, and other core applications. We see this currently with Amazon’s offerings with the Kindle having its own App store and ecosystem, including cloud offerings. But, without Google’s blessing, it is near impossible to make a non-android device as a manufacturer (say adopt Jolla OS, FF OS, or Ubuntu Touch). Members of the Open Handset Alliance (required to sell and Android device), must contractually agree to NOT sell non-approved Google devices. A good example of this was Acers stab at selling devices with Aliyun OS in China.
Google makes OEMs pass what it calls a “compatibility test” to be eligible. That word and process, is largely a way for Google to regulate Android and shut out any competition, making OEMs bow to Google and kiss the ring. Apps are also made to be bought in a bundle, rather than allowing purchase of any single app. This is largely why ROM makers also do not package in GAPPS (google core apps) into ROMs, or face legal action for doing so. Skyhook fell prey to this in trying to offer an alternative location service. It seems breaking away from Google, is pretty much a non-option for most.
Roms, Kit-Kats, and Replicants!
The alternative to this for a long time, and still is, rooting your phone and installing a custom ROM. This always allowed you to reap all the benefits of AOSP features and whatever else a ROM maker wanted to use. What google is doing sorta leaves ROM makers in an odd spot, left to make their own solutions, as including a Google feature and not being able to get the source of it, is not the best way to go about things. Then there are all the core Google apps that you can’t legally just include in the ROM. If you take out all of those nice things, Android is seemingly not very “fun.”
Replicant hopes to solve all these problems mentioned. The team aims to develop an independent version of Android with no propriety software whatsoever. In my mind, this is how it should be, and is what I would love to have. The joy of open source is, and should be, being able to create what you want, and share that with whom you want. Freedom is power folks. Although Open Source is a bit of a business and commercial “buzz word” (see GNU.org), it does enable some marvelous things. Replicant, however, is poised to make their work “free,” as in “freedom.” Free software is a term pioneered and championed by Richard Stallman, and is the basis for the GNU Project. The differences mainly come down to the social aspect of the whole process.
Licensing aside, Replicant could be the answer many of us are waiting for. I for one, like Replicant states, am not in the business of “accepting unjust power over your computing and more generally, over your life.” Those who see value in that statement are the primary target of Replicant. The future of computing rests on help and support from great people, and taking control away from those amazing people is not the way forward.
The technical gamble:
Under the hood, replicant will be building off the work from the Cyanogen Mod project. And as before, GAPPS (Google’s core application bundle), will be distributed similarly, with the current workaround of saving the package files from another user’s phone. The workaround allows custom ROM users to still enjoy the core Google apps. Replicant, though, hopes to eliminate this “need” and binding process. They aim to include all the code as “free” and modifiable. A good example is the F-Droid marketplace, a wonderful FOSS market of great software, free of restriction.
The biggest challenge is getting hardware support properly working, which involves a large amount of reverse-engineering of things that are not visible and easily obtained. The amount of work involved will keep full hardware support from coming to Replicant for quite some time. Even if/when Replicant is fully made available, items such as the bootloader and modem firmware will still likely be proprietary.
It is yet to be seen how Replicant will stack up to offerings such as Jolla OS, Firefox OS, Ubuntu Touch, and others. The Replicant team argues Android is still the largest and most important player despite the closed source control power play grab of Google. Having a system that follows FOSS principles is something that I know I can trust, and I very much anticipate the work of the Replicant team. Code is meant to be used, shared, reviewed, copied, and improved upon, without the restriction of an overlord. Call me a hippie, but that is my hope. Keep an eye on the Repilcant team’s website for on-going development.
Replicant team: http://replicant.us/