Google as Android "Vendor"

In a recent tally of mobile OS market share estimates from Canalys, the market was organized by OS vendors. The number of devices sold by operating system vendor includes as many OS’s as each vendor may supply.

For example, Microsoft licensed two different OS’s during the period: Windows Mobile 6.5 and Windows Phone 7. Nokia also offered multiple versions of Symbian, which have varying degrees of inter-operability.

Google’s offerings include (as per footnote) OMS and Tapas platforms in addition to Android.

Fragmentation is not a new subject as OS licensing models have been ripe with it for as long as they existed.

What I want to draw attention to is the concept of Google as “vendor.”

A vendor in the traditional supply chain model is a supplier that sells to an up-stream value-adding stage of the value chain. The word itself has as its root the word “vend” which means to sell.

But we know Google does not sell Android. And it’s not just that Google builds a product and ships it for free.

There are no contracts associated with the transaction of downloading the Android source. No contract means no obligations, no warranties, no terms and no conditions. The product is not indemnified against litigation. There are no licenses, no support, no copyrights and no patent license granted.

The contract-less nature of Android makes it easy to distribute. It’s one of the key reasons why distribution can grow at 600% a year–there is no distribution in the classic sense. The real disruptive advantage for Android lies in the removal of distribution costs (not just development costs). Google themselves admit that they have no idea who implements the software and how it’s used.

Which makes the classification of Google as a “vendor” a misnomer. The notion of ‘vending’ something implies a contract. What Google does is write code and place it on an FTP server.

It’s a wonderful way to save on SG&A (there is no sales, general or administrative expense.) But as everyone knows, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

By avoiding any contractual engagement with the authors of the source code, implementors are subject to independent litigation for IP violations. This is why HTC and Motorola are targets for Apple and not Google.  Google is no more liable for writing Android than the author of a book on bomb making is liable for the bombs put into use [1].

Patent violation rests with implementation, not the writing of the idea itself.

Furthermore, Google cannot ensure Android users have any specific experience. They can’t encourage upgrades, service models or any form of common UI. The experience, like the protection of property is the responsibility of the implementor.

Can Google change this approach with Android? Not as long as Android is open source. Can Google change Android from being open source? No, they don’t own the source to Android. Nobody does.


  1. If the bomb making book was a copy of another, then the author is liable, which is the case being made by Oracle.