Google’s Android operating system is the most popular OS in history. So why does everybody want to replace it with something else?
(OK, not everybody. Microsoft, which announced its upcoming Surface Duo don’t-call-it-a-phone phone, promised full Android compatibility.)
One way or the other, Android will be replaced. And if I had to bet on the replacement, I’d bet on … .
The Information reported this week that Facebook is working on its own operating system. An engineer named Mark Lucovsky, who helped created the Windows NT operating system, is leading the project for Facebook. The company is also working on a virtual assistant to compete with Siri, Alexa and the Google Assistant.
Facebook’s OS is expected to power next-generation devices like virtual- and augmented-reality glasses. These would normally be expected to run future versions of Android. So why not Android? Facebook’s hardware chief Andrew Bosworth says, “We really want to make sure the next generation has space for us.”
(Ironically, this is exactly why Google acquired Android in the first place — to make sure smartphones had a safe space to run Google’s advertiser-supported apps.)
One single Facebook
Another possible motivation is that a new OS could be part of Facebook’s broader moves to inoculate itself from being broken up by governments in the future. If it’s various products, such as Oculus, Instagram and WhatsApp run Facebook’s own OS, then they might be seen as a single product that belong together inside a single company.
Facebook launched previous efforts that revealed its nervousness about relying on Google for the distribution of its apps. The company launched a project code-named Oxygen in 2013 that would offer a Facebook-specific “app store” where users could download Facebook’s Android apps beyond the Play Store.
Facebook isn’t the only company building an alternative to Android
Chinese electronics giant Huawei says they’ve built an operating system they can use on Huawei smartphones instead of Android. (Huawei reportedly enjoys 42 percent smartphone market share inside China.) They launched the OS, called HongmengOS in Chinese and HarmonyOS in English, because the company has been blacklisted by the US government, which cited security concerns over Huawei products.
Google services are blocked inside China, so most Chinese smartphone makers use the unlicensed, open source version that does not have access to the Google Play Store.
The HarmonyOS is open source, and could be used by other companies.
The harm to Google would not be that Chinese customers would use HarmonyOS inside China, but that Huawei and other Chinese companies could export HarmonyOS phones globally, thus displacing licensed Android.
It’s clear that Huawei really wants to use Android, no doubt because of its stability and compatibility with apps on the market, and that they’re using HarmonyOS as a threat or bargaining chip. So far it isn’t working.
Still, the creation of a Chinese-made OS to replace Android is in “harmony” with a Chinese government directive to move the entire Chinese government off all non-Chinese software by 2022.
Another approach to avoiding Android is to use an existing operating system instead of building a new one from Scratch.
The PureOS is a Linux distribution created not only for laptops made by a company called Purism, but also their smartphones. The Librem-branded devices run PureOS for security and privacy beyond what out-of-the-box Android offers — or what out-of-the-box Linux offers, for that matter. PureOS is a Debian-based GNU/Linux distribution. The current version is called PureOS 9.0 Hephaestus, and it can be downloaded and installed separately from Purism hardware.
PureOS also comes with its own web browser called PureBrowser, which is a security-centric version of Firefox that defaults to DuckDuckGo, rather than Google Search, as the search engine.
Another project for running Linux instead of Android is called the PinePhone. The idea is that instead of creating a new or modifying an old operating system to replace Android with Linux, the phone itself is redesigned to run unmodified Linux.
Many companies clearly believe that Android needs to be replaced. And Google agrees. That’s why Google is working harder and investing more than any other company to replace Android. And it appears that Google is serious about Fuchsia. The company hired MacOS pioneer Bill Stevenson to head the project.
Google’s Fuchsia OS, in development since 2016, will replace Android, and possibly the ChromeOS as well, if all goes according to plan.
An online demo version of Fuchsia, which has since been taken down, barely functioned and didn’t really run any software. But Fuchsia has been shown to run on Google’s Pixelbook and Pixel 3 devices. The reason for this compatibility probably has everything to do with internal testing and development.
Fuchsia’s Zircon micro-kernel may enable the OS to run on everything from watches to desktops.
It’s designed to function, in part, the way Chrome does with extensions. It should enable features to roll out across apps instead of only within them. (For example, if you want to add a grammar checker, it wouldn’t just go inside your word processor app but instead would appear in all apps.) Fuchsia also should be more Google Assistant-centric, with Google’s virtual assistant controlling more actions.
Crucially, Fuchsia will run Android apps. The latest Android Open Source Project version shows that Fuchsia will run Android apps via the Android Runtime (ART). Future versions of ART will reportedly be installable as a norma app, and will facilitate the running of Android apps.
Android is a global behemoth that is installed on more devices (more than 80 percent of the market) used by more people, and supported by more apps, than any other operating system in history.
So why do so many companies want to replace it?
In a word: independence.
The control over an operating system conveys far too much power to business rivals (Facebook), political rivals (Huawei) and feature rivals (Purism).
For Google, the replacement of Android is simply a necessity. Android is coming up on 18 years old. It’s probably not suited to next-generation platforms like smart glasses. And it’s probably not suited to Google’s business goals, which may be to both unify its disparate operating systems and also run a single OS on IoT devices, wearables, smartphones, tablets, laptops, cars and desktops.
One way or the other, Android will be replaced. And if I had to bet on the replacement, I’d bet on Fuschia.