The news came too soon not to have already been in the works before Google admitted having bought Motorola, but the timing of a Facebook post revealing Samsung had hired the programmer responsible for the most popular unsanctioned Android unlocker and modification kit on the market does look suspicious.
Android is open source, so both vendors and end users can, in theory add their own modifications. Most handsets are locked down to prevent changes the carriers don't like. Carriers, phone manufacturers and Google's own Android-development team publicly deplore and sometimes cut off service to users who take root access to their devices, replace portions of the OS that keep them from making other changes, and then add features that would be either expensive or unavailable from their service providers otherwise.
Steve Kondik, whom Samsung announced this week it had hired, is the most successful of those modders.
Kondik founded and continues to head Cyanogen Mod, a software developer that makes firmware that replaces the pre-installed version of Android with a modified one that includes capabilities such as a VPN, USB tethering (even against the carrier's wishes), extended support for streaming and local media, enhancements to onboard cameras, incognito browsing and other features not offered in most Android versions.
It's not clear what he'll be doing at Samsung, though he told Android-centric blog AndroidAndMe that "I
will be working on making Android more awesome."
Samsung Mobile is obviously happy with the possibility of Awesomeizing Android, but Google may not be.
In 2009, when Cyanogen had only 30,000 users, Google lawyers wrote Kondik to say CyanoGen was an unauthorized version of the OS and to demand he stop distributing it.
The blowback from CyanogenMod fans was so great Google eventually had to clarify that its objection was that Cyanogen included "closed" proprietary apps, not the open-source portion of the OS.
Cyanogen was not dead. The current version runs on more than 40 Android devices and has been installed more than 500,000 times.
Though Android is famously open to customization, Google has been accused of holding back the Honeycomb tablet-optimized version to prevent modifications carriers and manufacturers would prefer to make – primarily adding proprietary-looking interfaces, extra marketing tweaks, bloatware and undeletable links to premium-cost services.
Google hasn't changed anything or decided to hold anything back according to statements from Andy Rubin, vice-president for engineering at Google and head of the Android group. Google needs time to optimize Honeycomb for smartphones as well as tablets, Rubin said.
The official release of Honeycomb – Android 3.0 – is not yet scheduled, but should be any time now, judging from the number of tablets ready to ship from vendors who have said they'll be running Honeycomb.
Kondik told the blog AndroidGuys he would continue to lead CyanogenMod while working at Samsung, a job he took because it dovetails with his work at Cyanogen and comes with a regular paycheck. Cyanogen has evolved from a hobby into a more professional organization, but is still not "a real job," Kondik wrote.
" ...it's a job and I'm glad that I can use what I learned from all this to do something cool in the real world :)," he emailed to AndroidGuys. "I'll still be doing code review and some leadership for CM, but I'll be keeping it legit like always...I think we really broke away from the modding community. Most of us are professional engineers or in the field some way or another."
It's not clear what Kondik will be doing to make Android awesome, but it's not likely he'll be working on a replacement for Samsung's proprietary TouchWiz user interface.
It's possible that – if Samsung reacts to Google's acquisition of Motorola by pushing its proprietary, competitive Bada OS as a replacement for Android – that Kondik may end up working on it.
Bada is less a competitor to Android than it is Samsung's proprietary replacement for TouchWiz. Bada has some features found in Android – allowing users to install apps, develop their own mods and open-source-ish functions rare in proprietary mobile OSes developed by phone manufacturers.
Bada and all the apps and tools associated with it are proprietary, however, and not interoperable with Android.
Android is where Kondik made his reputation and where Samsung will need the greatest additional push as it gears up to compete with Google and Motorola.
It's far more likely Kondik will end up building mods, replacement firmware, unlockers, apps that allow users to take root access to Motorola phones and other tools that will help Motorola users unlock themselves from the premium services and products Motorola sells and allow them to buy the same kind of overpriced services from Samsung, instead.
Kondik did say he would keep CyanogenMod in operation and the software available, though, so even if Samsung is able to turn his Android-freeing skills to its own advantage, at least there will still be an alternative for those who don't want to be stuck with either Samsung or Motorola/Google.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.