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.