Is there a line between what is and isn't Android on Android-derived or compatible devices?

A recent market report included Android-derived but incompatible handsets sold in China as Android - begging the question "what is Android?"

Android's open source nature has been a large factor of the mobile OS's success. Although Google generally partners with a single vendor to create a point product for each Android release (Samsung's Nexus S for the recent Gingerbread release or Motorola's Xoom for the upcoming Honeycomb release), the company eventually release each Android version as open source for other manufacturers to implement (and potentially modify) as they see fit, often with input from various carriers that will sell the result handsets or tablets.

In itself, that process is little more than an extension of the open source tradition. It has, however, led to some challenges for Android as a platform (particularly when it comes to enterprise adoption or approval from IT departments). Since each manufacturer and carrier can modify or skin Android as they see fit, there can be some significant differences from one device or carrier to another. More importantly, this can impact when Android OS updates are provided to customers since they must be vetted by manufacturers for each device and then passed onto carriers for over the air delivery.

I've been somewhat critical of this update process and the resulting fragmentation of the platform in the past. Although, I personally use Android and usually don't see fragmentation as a huge issue as a consumer (though sometimes I do miss the single source update method Apple provides to iOS users). Being a former IT manager, however, this patchwork approach would have driven me crazy and would have lead me to limit the use of Android devices within an organization as much as possible.

While fragmentation is debatable as an issue, Android open source nature has led to a new and unique challenge when calculating market share. AppleInsider, an Apple-centric news and rumor site, yesterday reported that the latest smartphone market share report by Canalys (which showed Android taking over as the most commonly used smartphone OS on the planet) included an interesting footnote saying that "Google numbers" "relate to Android, as well as the OMS and Tapas platform variants."

Both OMS and Tapas are both Chinese-developed Android competitors that are, to some extent, based on Google's platform. Neither are sold outside China. Both appear to divert users to Chinese information resources (search, maps, social networks, etc.) rather than to Google – thus negating the increased mobile search revenue that is at the heart of Google's efforts with Android.

Interestingly enough, OMS, which powers China Mobile's OPhone, borrows heavily on APIs copied not form Android, but from competing platforms Symbian and Microsoft's (now defunct) Windows Mobile and actually boasts app compatibility with these platforms more than with Android and Google's Android Market. In fact, the phone is essentially incompatible with Android apps and relies on apps from a native SDK. China Mobile reports that there are 600 native apps (in addition to apps from other platforms) and 43,000 developers working to advance the platform.

Tapas, meanwhile, is closer to the Android code on which it is based, but has been modified to point to Chinese resources instead of Google resources for much of its Internet-enabled functionality. It sports integration with native social networks, ebook sources, video sharing sites, and search (through the Chinese Baidu search engine).

The immediate question is whether these should even be included in Android market share numbers when it's clear neither platform is really Android in any typical sense. It also raises the question of long term implications to Google providing Android as open source and where the line is between what is and is not considered Android.

Then there are the potential legal implications surrounding OMS and its appropriation of not only Android, but code that allows it to run both Symbian and Windows Mobile apps. Not that this is the first time Chinese companies have adopted and modified western standards in a move to provide similar services but limit them to the Chinese market.

Some of these issues extend beyond China's border. The rumors that RIM is looking to create an Android-compatible app environment on its PlayBook tablet and future BlackBerry models based on the PlayBook's QNX OS is another excellent example of what constitutes an Android device both in terms of market share and in terms of execution of Android as a platform. A similar example is the work by LG and VMWare to virtualize Android on LG handsets, which would technically create two Android devices on one piece of hardware.

We may eventually need to consider a broader definition of Android as a platform and what constitutes an Android device. There have already been comparison's between Android and Apple's iOS that cast Android in the light of the original IBM PC, PC clones, and DOS/Windows compatible computers as opposed to Apple's Mac. Perhaps, we'll need to delineate Android in similar terms like Android and Android-compatible.

What do you think? What defines an Android device when it comes to either market numbers or simple user understanding? Share your opinion in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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