What are motivations to fork Android?

There are a lot of discussions – and quite a few attempts – of forking Android. But why would a company try to fork Android in the first place? What are the strategic motivations?

To try to get a comprehensive picture, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of different players in the broader TMT value chain.

A typical handset vendor –

  • Generally speaking, forking Android allows for deeper differentiation compared to run-of-the-mill competition, if the vendor has the software prowess.
  • An extension of the above, another consideration is to offer a customized OS deeply tailored to a specific market, e.g. China, where the local Internet landscape is drastically different from the west, and hence Google search / Gmail / Youtube etc. are irrelevant (making it far less attractive to stick with Google’s stock Android). A lot of big Internet countries actually fall into this category (if partially), e.g. Russia, South Korea, and perhaps Japan.
  • Another possibility is to serve the specific needs of a big customer – e.g. a telco, or a government agency; or generally, a big company that has very specific plans on how the devices will be used (e.g. as a retail POS). This doesn’t generally impact consumers, though I’ll call out telcos later since their perspective is important.

An Internet company –

  • Very similar rationale to why Google created Android in the first place – gain distribution within target audience. For a Internet company with a large enough set of services and users, creating a controlled, dedicated and direct channel with the end-user is a strong temptation. Amazon is the first company that actually did this on a large scale with its Kindle Fire tablets; we shall see if Facebook does something similar next week.
  • Again, in places such as China, there is even more incentive for the major Internet players to fork Android, since Google is¬†conspicuously¬†absent and players would love to fill the void.

A telco –

  • Fewer and fewer telcos nowadays actually have strong value-added-services of their own (we can thank the iPhone for dramatically pushing adoption of over-the-top services – i.e. apps), but for a brave telco that still wants to retain a bigger cut of the pie, backing an OS of their own is a logical approach. China Mobile did this for a while with its OPhone, to little success.

A startup –

  • A startup could be trying to fill the gap for any of the entities above; in that case, the motivation is the same, except it’s being executed by an outside party.
  • There is space for a startup focusing on creating an Android fork without catering specifically any of the interests above. The initial motivation is to capture a sizable user-base by offering a better product, which could serve any number of future monetary goals. An example would be this week’s unveiling of the Smartisan OS in China, which was incredibly hyped up in the tech community. The Smartisan team is focusing on what they think is a far more usable version of Android, in the hopes that superior usability will lead to market share, which they can later monetize either by launching their own phone or other forms of industry partnerships (e.g. as a gatekeeper of their user-base for other Internet services, collecting a referral fee in the process).

MINOR UPDATES:

A couple of missing points to add to the original post.

For companies (both large and small) trying to target adjacent markets, Android offers a compelling starting point to build an offer. Example adjacent markets are gaming (where OUYA recently unveiled their first attempt) and in-vehicle systems (such as Ford’s SYNC) which are resembling tablets day by day.

Another motivation across the board for large companies is to strategically counter Google’s influence of the market. As in, forking Android just for the sake of undermining Google. To a certain extent, Microsoft’s continued investment in Bing is motivated by such thinking – keeping Google in check by owning and growing Google’s largest direct competitor.

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2 thoughts on “What are motivations to fork Android?”

  1. Sharp insights, as always. Two observations:

    1) It seems very few have been able to a design a ROM that consumers adopt by choice. Xiaomi, and maybe CyanogenMod, are the only examples I can think of. The rest are more analogous to crapware from the era of feature phones: something the seller wants to force upon the buyer. Amazon is somewhere in-between.

    2) It seems that handset vendors could become a gatekeeper for content even without forking Android. They just get paid to pre-install apps on a vanilla version of Android. I hear that the going fee in Shenzhen for an Android pre-install is 1.5 RMB, which often happens with the “grey-market” phones that are smuggled into the mainland through HK by intermediaries. Bigger vendors might have the trust and leverage to go for rev share arrangements with developers.

    This model existed in China in the era of feature phones too. Sky Mobi (NASDAQ: MOBI) became an intermediary between the 100s of Shanzai handset vendors and developers. They’d pay for pre-installs and then take rev share from the devs, mostly for games.

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