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2/19/2014
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Android Phones Sans Google Services

Yandex, Russian Web giant, enables manufacturers to create Android devices without Google apps on board.

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Yandex introduced new firmware Wednesday that relies on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) to let hardware makers develop their own Android smartphones away from the watchful eyes of Google. The firmware package includes essential apps and user-interface elements, which Yandex is offering for free. This is good news for smartphone manufacturers seeking to offer a differentiated experience, but it comes with a catch.

The AOSP program offers the basic benefits of Android without Google's services on board. That means no Play Store, no Gmail, no Google Maps, and so forth. Amazon uses AOSP for its Kindle tablets. Nokia's forthcoming Android handset will also use AOSP rather than the standard version of Android. Amazon and Nokia's use of AOSP and customizations are often referred to as "forks" in Android, given that they each take Android in a different direction. Yandex stopped short of calling its firmware, Yandex.Kit, a fork.

In order to make up for the lost Google services, Yandex created a 3D user interface, called Yandex.Shell, along with a browser, email, maps, Yandex.Search, and its own app store. The Yandex.Store will have about 100,000 apps at launch, including popular apps such as social networks. Many of the apps will target Yandex's predominantly Russian user base. For example, Yandex.Kit includes a keyboard that can guess the next word in Russian and will provide prompts in the correct case. Further, when passwords are entered, they are shown in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.

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"Yandex.Kit will be enjoyed both by users and Android device manufacturers," said Yury Vecher, head of software distribution at Yandex. "The former get a smartphone that's easy to use, while the latter receive all the necessary services and technologies for its creation, on flexible terms. We're ready to work with any company manufacturing Android devices, on any market." Yandex said all revenue generated via Yandex-based phones will be shared with the companies that manufacture them. It already has complete products prepared for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. It can adjust the firmware for other markets.

Yandex has been working on Yandex.Kit with several handset makers looking to customize their devices in ways not possible with Google services on board. Huawei and Explay have both created Yandex.Kit-based Android smartphones that will be on display at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona the week of Feb. 24. Yandex hopes to launch the first Yandex-based tablets by summer.

Russian residents will get their first taste of Yandex.Kit in Huawei's Honor 3 Yandex and Explay's Flame smartphones. The first tablets on Yandex.Kit are expected this summer.

What's not clear is how well Yandex-based phones will run standard Android applications -- if at all. Further, the security implications of stepping away from Google Play Services are murky at best. In markets where Android doesn't quite fit the operator-OEM business model as-is, Yandex is offering a possible alternative. The success of the first few handsets will provide more clarity in the appeal of Google-less Android handsets.

Could the growing movement toward open-source hardware rewrite the rules for computer and networking hardware the way Linux, Apache, and Android have for software? Also in the Open Source Hardware issue of InformationWeek: Mark Hurd explains his "once-in-a-career opportunity" at Oracle.

Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio

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Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
2/19/2014 | 12:16:15 PM
Google's reaction
In general, how much does this forking of Android worry Google? Presumably Amazon's project is more concerning than a project aimed at a Russian market, but at some point, these efforts must be seen as both diluting the Android brand and making it vulnerable to bad press surrounding any security breaches that happen in the varients.

Of course, the flip side is, what can Google do to stop it?
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
2/19/2014 | 5:11:15 PM
Re: Google's reaction
>Of course, the flip side is, what can Google do to stop it?

Google can deploy really compelling services. Maybe some people will prefer Yandex apps to Google Mobile Services, but I'd bet it will take a while to gain traction.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
2/19/2014 | 6:09:08 PM
Re: Google's reaction
Very true! Nothing like some healthy competition ...
SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Ninja
2/20/2014 | 4:47:30 AM
Re: Android Phones Sans Google Services
This is a very interesting news. It is strange to think of Android phones without Google services and Play store. Nevertheless it is quite remarkable to know that Yandex.Kit based phones will debut with 100000 apps on Yandex app store. It is yet to see though how users actually take this somewhat varied kind of Android when it actually comes to the market.
SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Ninja
2/20/2014 | 5:41:19 AM
Re: Android Phones Sans Google Services
@ Lorna Garey, your points are quite valid. Amazon with worldwide customer base and more universal appeal should be more concerning to Google than Yandex with appeal to mostly Russian market. Security concerns are also noticeable and it will be interesting to see how much security Yandex can provide in their new smartphones.
??????
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??????"290,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/18/2014 | 6:55:40 AM
Maybe it will get better
I'm in Russia now and bought myself a cheap smartphone without realizing that this had happened.  It's pretty awful so far.  It is servicable, but the basic apps and services I use are not available and its hard to find substitutes.  Perhaps in time their platform will become more usable, and perhaps it is more usable for a native Russian speaker, but for now it is annoying and unpolished in many small ways and the only available app store just doesn't have the applications available to fix it.
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