Is Android really open? Really?

Just so you know, today’s post is more questions than answers. I’ll state up front that I’ve never owned an Android device, nor have I used one for more than a few minutes at at time.

Simply put, I want to know if “The Google Experience” is intrinsic to the Android mobile OS.

According to Gil Bouhnick at The Mobile Spoon, Android comes in three variants:

  1. The Google Experience is the most sophisticated version, with all the Google goodies pre-loaded inside with the Google logo. In addition, this version comes with unrestricted access to the Android market.
  2. Strings Attached: Manufacturers sign a distribution agreement with Google and pre-install the Google applications. The OS, however, does not carry the Google logo.
  3. Google-free: The free version of the Android OS without any sign of the Google mobile apps. UI and applications can vary from one phone to another.

And yet, I’ve never heard of any Google-free Android handset for sale in any market. Add this to the fracas over version 1 of the famous Cyanogen Mod and it would seem that Google apps are not to be tampered with. Does this also mean that their presence on every Android handset is mandatory?

Here’s why I’m asking…

I’m not Android-bashing here by any means. I regularly use Google Wave and have a Gmail account. But I’m hesitant to turn over all of my personal data — specifically my address book and appointments — to Google. Why?

  1. I live in Canada. Culturally we’re barely different from our friends south of the border, but we do have our own laws and protections. We are, for example, not under the jurisdiction of ACTA or the DCMA — at least not yet.
  2. Google is based in the United States — meaning that whatever rights to privacy that I hold as a citizen of Canada go straight out the window when I use Google products. Of course this is also true for the other wonderful American Internet services I use — Facebook, Twitter, etc. But Google makes me particularly wary.

Maybe it’s because their “don’t be evil” motto is a bit disingenuous, or perhaps they’re just a victim of their own success. But as I found out last night from my favourite Linux podcast, the recent hacker exploits in China were made possible by a backdoor in Gmail designed expressly for the United States government to gain access to user data.

What do you think? Am I being naive? Should I stop worrying and embrace The Google Experience? And conversely, can I use an Android device without it?


  1. While it’s not a phone the Archos 5 Internet tablet is a non-Google Experience (NGE) device. I think there are some NGE phone in the Chinese market as well.

    The Google closed source apps that you lose with a NGE device are Gmail, Maps, Market, Talk, and YouTube.

    I don’t think there are any complete NGE ROMS available for popular devices like the Dream, Magic or Hero. There are some closed source drivers well which seems to be the main hurdle that would have to be overcome to create a NGE ROM.

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