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Botox For Your Android Smartphones and Tablets

“Under the Hood” blog series – getting a deeper technical insight like the mobile solutions, JVM, computer languages, scripts, databases and other interesting tools and technologies. Each blog in this series is a result from our experiences, customer projects and gained knowledge through the web community.

It is the Android Software that Counts, Stupid!

Are you planning to purchase an Android smartphone? Do you feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of devices? You don’t want a new smartphone but your device is outdated? There is this specific app you want to install and requires a new Android Operating System version?

Would it not be nice to have something similar like botox for your wrinkles but for your old device? Well, there is. It is called “mod” and requires hacking instead of injecting.

This blog will not help you in deciding which hardware or manufacturer fits you better. Instead I can provide some clarifications about the various Android derivatives.

Android is not Android


One comment before I continue: sorry for the abbreviations, but in the IT business it is hip and extensively used. This means for you and all of us: we have to get used to it.

There is the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) as the “plain/vanilla Android”, aftermarket firmware like CyanogenMod, “Google experience” Nexus devices with “Stock Android”, “stock Android” like HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWiz, “Google Play” editions like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One.

All these buzzwords do not help us simple-constructed end-users. Let me try to clarify some of them.

Some Background

Today Android is the market leader as an operating system for smartphones with a 51.5% sales share (iOS: 42.5%).

In 2007 an alliance of industry leaders like Google, T-Mobile, HTC, Samsung, and others was founded to define an open platform for mobile devices. As a result of this alliance the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) was initiated.

For simplicity when talking about OS the terms firmware and ROM are synonyms. The best explanation I found so far is this one: What Is Meant By Firmware, Stock & Custom ROMs And Flashing [Guide]

In short: a ROM (Read-Only-Memory) is the “memory” of your hardware device. A firmware is software installed in the ROM and is not often changed – it stays “firm” in the ROM. Now guess what the firmware in an Android smartphone is? Since it is in the Read-Only-Memory an App for example can have only access to it, but it cannot change or delete some parts of Android.

Plain Android, Stock and Custom ROMs, …???

AOSP – The Core and Plain Android OS

The AOSP as the „plain Android” is something you will never find in any smartphone. The closest custom ROMs are Google Experience devices – also known as Google Nexus devices. They contain the AOSP (open source) with additional proprietary (close source) Google mobile apps like Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Maps, etc. – on the device.

Please note that in the context of AOSP I talk about “plain Android” (“plain OS” is also okay) and not about “plain firmware” or “plain ROM”. As mentioned above: AOSP is never installed (as a firmware) into a ROM. When Android is installed we talk about “stock Android” respectively “stock ROM” or “stock firmware”.

Stock ROMs: Android Firmware Provided by Manufacturer Devices

A stock ROM is what you get by buying an Android device. Some manufacturers has provided “Google Experience”-like devices calling them “Google Play” editions such as the Galaxy S4 Google Play edition, HTC One Google Play edition and Moto X Google Play edition. Besides the Nexus and Google Play edition (GPE) branding there are also differences. Features like HTC’s beats audio is integrated as part of the sound settings in the HTC One GPE.

Unlike GPE devices it is more common that manufacturers deliver enhanced stock ROMs with their own User Interfaces (HTC Sense, Sony Timescape, etc.) and additional settings and apps.

For us normal users it is not so important why differentiations are made between “Stock Android” (with capital “S”) and “stock Android”. But if you care then read this: What is Stock Android?

So What is Important For Me as a User When Choosing an Android Phone?

Additional Android Features and Apps

There are various devices with a manifold of different designs. But you might be interested by the number of software features and its usefulness as well.

In that case put Nexus and GPE devices aside. All you “just” need is comparing the different manufacturer devices. Music is your focus? Then a Sony Xperia might be the one. You want the latest, hippest, biggest, and leading phone? Then go and get a Samsung Galaxy S4 or S500 (in 2023 probably). In case you need more input then go to your next local store and ask for friendly advice – the client advisor will be happy to help you and other waiting clients will be happy as well.

Once you have a manufacturer device you may think, “I will be happy until death or a theft tears us apart”. After some time newer apps does not support your phone due to hardware requirements (low resolution) or older Android versions. Even after some more time you get the feeling your smartphone is a disposable product.

Errr… Older Android Versions After Six Months or One Year?

You might be lucky and your manufacturer will provide a software update. But in many cases and at some point in time definitely you will not get any further updates.

Why Should I Hack My Phone and Customize it?

There is the time when you want or need to buy a new “smart” phone. Maybe you have heard about nerds spending time hacking Android devices (stock ROMs) and modified it (custom ROMs)?

The “Big Three” Custom ROMs

Mods: Modifying and Customizing Stock ROMs

Besides fun another key motivation of these people is in getting independent from manufacturers. They play around and try to enhance and modify these devices: “mods” aka “custom ROMs”.

Sorry again, but not only that the IT has their own terminology; there are communities like hackers having their own language.

Along with these customized mods and manufacturer independence another huge advantage gets into place: the custom ROM contributors are frequently providing the latest Android updates. The reason is that it is in a developer’s nature!

CyanogenMod

End of 2008 Steve Kondik (hacker “cyanogen”) was able to get root access of Telekom’s G1. In August 2009 the CyanogenMod custom ROM was made public to other enthusiasts.

Since then CyanogenMod became the biggest custom ROM being installed on 6.5 million devices and supporting a sheer number of 198 devices. It was not easy but I found this detailed background story: Modders Make Android Work the Way You Want

AOKP – Android Open Kang Project

In November 2011 Roman Birg (soon to be a college graduate) modified AOSP for his brand new Galaxy Nexus, added additional features and released it under AOKP. It is based on AOSP – though further releases of AOKP are using code bases from CyanogenMod to support more devices.

AOKP supports 44 devices and is installed by more than one million users.

Its ability in customization and configuration goes far more than CyanogenMod. A more detailed comparison can be found here:

MIUI

From all major custom ROMs MIUI (MI User Interface, spoken: “My-You-EYE”) is the only one with a commercial background. Xiaomi Tech was founded in 2010 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xiaomi_Tech) with the goal to produce a cheap and high-end smartphone for the Chinese market.

Compared to CyanogenMod and AOKP the MIUI look-and-feel is heavily customized and it is similar to iPhones. MIUI is – on the contrary to the other two – is a closed source. The first smartphone was released in August 2011 and has reached ten million downloads beginning of this year.

Off-Topic: Some Words About Open Source and Close Source

AOSP Might Be The Core Android, But it is Google Providing New Versions and Pushing it Back to AOSP…

It is worth mentioning that Android 3.0 released in February 2011 became close source and Google did not make it available into the AOSP. In November 2011 Android 4.0 was part of the AOSP again – 3.5 weeks after its official release. In July this year Android 4.3 was released and published to AOSP as well.

Google’s Position on Open Source, Privacy, and Security

With the latest revelations by whistle blower Edward Snowden I wonder whether these Google Experience devices contain only AOSP and Google mobile apps – and nothing more…

The first releases of CyanogenMod has also bundled the Google Mobile apps – where Google earns money by these licenses from many manufacturers. Google sent a “Cease and Desist” order to the CyanogenMod team. What happened then was a shit storm by the community. At last CyanogenMod was allowed to use the Google bundles

In another blog I will get into detail about the topic privacy, security and what you can do against it.
Outlook

In my next blog I will compare on my Nexus 7 the original stock Android with the latest CyanogenMod.

Useful Links

Mobile commerce iOS and Android market share narrowing
Industry Leaders Announce Open Platform for Mobile Devices
Welcome to the Android Open Source Project!
What Is Meant By Firmware, Stock & Custom ROMs And Flashing [Guide]
What is Stock Android?
nerd: n. – 1. [mainstream slang] Pejorative applied to anyone with an above-average IQ and few gifts at small talk and ordinary social rituals.
CyanogenMod – History and development
CyanogenMod Statistics
Officially-supported CyanogenMod devices
Modders Make Android Work the Way You Want
Interview: Roman Birg, Lead Developer of the Android Open Kang Project
The Goods. Choose your device below
It’s Time To Swagger: Android Open Kang Project ROM Reaches 1 Million Users, AOKPush App Created To Celebrate
CM10.1 vs AOKP – A comparison of the two most popular custom ROMs out there!
Custom-ROMs für Ihren Androiden
New China-made smartphone unveiled as Chinese Internet firms eye domestic handset market
MIUI downloaded over 10 million times; help donate to charity by downloading a theme
Google Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”: Open source no more
ICS is coming to AOSP
Android version history – Android 4.3 Jelly Bean (API level 18)
The Android vs. Cyanogen story – has Google shot itself in the foot by shooting down developer?

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