fork in the road

Android forks: Why Google can rest easy. For now.

A collaboration with Ruadhan O’Donoghue, published on Below is a short excerpt; visit Mobiforge for the full article.

With worldwide sales of phones based on Android forks on the up, and with big cloud competitor Amazon consolidating its move into the Android-based OS space race with the release of the Fire phone, it’s time to look at Android forks. What is a fork? When is a fork not really a fork? And what do they mean for users and developers?

What is an Android fork?

There are two kinds of Android forks – ‘compatible’ and ‘non-compatible’. ‘Compatible’ Android forks are those that are based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP); comply with the Android Compatibility Definition Document (CDC); and pass the Compatibility Test Suite (CTS) (see here).

The CDC defines compatibility across all technical aspects of a device, covering hardware, such as minimum acceptable specifications (e.g. minimum screensize, RAM, and storage are all specified), and also acceptable software configurations including UI, native APIs, and security models.

The CTS is a downloadable test-harness which executes JUnit test-cases, packaged as Android .apk files, on a target device or simulator to determine its compatibility.

Compatible forks may or may not include Google apps (gApps) or Google Play Services, but, because they’re ‘compatible’, gApps and Play Services can be sideloaded or added later by users, meaning they can participate fully in the Play app ecosystem. Examples include CyanogenMod and the MIUI OS. ‘Non-compatible’ forks are built on AOSP, but are built to run their own ecosystems. These forks are locked out of Play Services, though many Google apps can be sideloaded without rooting, and the Play Store installed on rooted devices. Examples of ‘non-compatible’ Android devices in the West (we’ll talk about China and Asia later) include the Amazon Fire phone and the soon-to-be-discontinued Nokia X.

Some history

On 5 November 2007 a group of technology companies announced the development of Android through the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). Android, per the announcement, would be ‘made available under one of the most progressive, developer-friendly open-source licenses, which gives mobile operators and device manufacturers significant freedom and flexibility to design products.’ That license was and is Apache 2.0, but for manufacturers the ‘freedom and flexibility’ touted in the announcement was qualified almost from the start. The most obvious lock-in was the requirement for any manufacturer wanting to gain access to what used to be called the Android Market (now the Play Store) and to leverage the Android brand (trademarked by Google) to sign up to the OHA – and signing up to the OHA meant signing up to an anti-fragmentation agreement. This agreement is a non-disclosure one, but in practice, it means not releasing handsets that failed the compatibility test suite (CTS), and the CTS was and is controlled by Google.

So while AOSP was open, and manufacturers, in theory, were free to do whatever they wanted with it – including forking – in practice anyone wanting to get access to the juicy, marketable bits of Android: the app store, the Google suite of apps (Gmail, Maps, and so on [1]), had to sign up to the OHA, and had to cede an awful lot of control to Google. In a 2012 blog post, Google’s Andy Rubin described this as a ‘virtuous cycle’: sign up to the OHA, make ‘compatible’ Android phones, and ‘all members of the ecosystem’ – app developers, OEMs, consumers – benefit. Alternatively, as Google engineer Dan Morrill wrote in an internal email: ‘[…] we are using compatibility as a club to make [OEMs] do what we want.’


Image: Wonderlane.


Emoji set to live long and prosper – thanks to Unicode

A collaboration with Ruadhan O’Donoghue, published on Below is a short excerpt; visit Mobiforge for the full article.

While emoji were big in Japan from the time of their launch (and supported by a Gmail Labs feature from 2009), they began to truly proliferate internationally with the launch of Apple’s iOS 5, and its preloaded bank of emoji characters, in late 2011.

Take a look at Twitter or Tumblr today, and both platforms are overrun with yellow faces in various states of distress or joy; dancing girls; and smiling turds. When nude photos were stolen from her phone—allegedly due to a breach in iCloud’s security—and released on 4Chan last week, Kirsten Dunst used emoji to succinctly register her outrage:

Kirsten Dunst icloud twitterOr take a look at, which tracks emojis on Twitter in real time, and you’ll see that emoji use numbers in the tens of billions. Some of the most popular are unsurprising—hearts feature heavily in the top ten—others are… rather more baffling. 2.6 million uses of ‘Aubergine’, anyone?


Image: The All-Nite Images


On noise and Second Square to None

A piece I wrote for the online version of the now defunct Analogue Magazine.

The number of venues for experimental music in Dublin has always been limited, and with the demise of what once were regular Lazybird events in the International recently, it became more limited still. Celebrating their first birthday on the 20th of December, the Second Square to None collective – who run monthly events in Twisted Pepper – aim to plug that gap by providing a forum for experimental and noise music – as well as ambient, downbeat, and electronica – in the city. To my mind, probably SSTN’s most exciting function lies in its offering a space for genres of sound that would otherwise languish unheard on the Dublin scene – one of those being noise.

Noise music’s first manifesto came from Luigi Russolo in 1913, who argued that, ‘The limited circle of pure sounds [as produced by orchestral and other traditional instruments] must be broken, and the infinite variety of ‘noise-sound’ conquered.’ This ‘infinite variety’ was explored in the twentieth century by artists from John Cage to Lou Reed to Merzbow (and many many more in-between), but as the twentieth century bled into the twenty-first, and computers became ubiquitous, the ‘infinite variety’ has morphed into something more like ‘infinity squared’. Not that the genre was growing tired, in need of a shot in the arm, as it were, but the ubiquity of both the hard and software needed to mangle and mash audio meant that more and more artists began to play around at the boundaries of sound. Continue reading →

hospital drip

Journalism in absentia: Reporting medical research in the mainstream media

A version of this piece ran in the first edition of the Michael Smith-edited reboot of Village Magazine in December 2008. 

A common rumour concerning the contemporary print media is that it is heavily reliant on the public relations industry to supply it with story ideas. The mass austerity drives of newspapers all over the world from the 1990’s onwards; brought on by declining sales and advertising revenue, led to massive staff cutbacks, even as newspapers increased their pagination. In 2006, a group of researchers at Cardiff University set out to discover if the rumours of a newspaper industry in hock to its public relations cousin were true. Their findings, originally published in 2006 but brought to wide public attention in Nick Davies’s 2008 book Flat Earth News, showed that they were: of the 2,207 stories they analysed, they found that less than half of them were entirely independent of traceable PR.

The reliance of the media on press releases and press officers to give them both story ideas, and, too often, the wording of a story too is explained in one way by the the increased pressures on ever smaller numbers of journalists to fill an ever larger news hole, in less time than ever before. A second contributing factor is the increased popularity of lifestyle supplements. These are easy and cheap to produce, consisting as they do of pages of thinly-veiled advertorial and news of celebrity exploits, both of which categories come pre-packaged in press releases from companies and agents eager to see their brand promoted. Continue reading →