China Needs Android, Not Google
Android is central to Chinese success in the mobile marketplace. Independent hardware vendors (IHVs) utilizing Chinese SoCs for their tablets tend to use Google’s OS because it's cost-free and open-source. Android is what allows $100 to $200 devices to work just as well as $600 flagship devices. Some buyers of China-made tablets may brag that their budget devices can do everything the more premium products can do. In some ways, they are right. But the story isn’t that simple. In many cases, "cheap" can also be code for "unsupported and closed-source."
And therein lies the problem. While Android (specifically, the Android Open Source Project) is open source, many of the Chinese SoC vendors aren’t true to the initiative’s spirit. There's been some valid criticism aimed at some of these companies and the ways in which they enjoy the benefits of being part of the Android experience, yet don't actually give much back in return. Companies like Rockchip, MediaTek. and Allwinner are unapologetically closed source when it comes to their kernels, making it difficult for owners of products based on those platforms to move beyond the version of Android that shipped with their devices. Furthermore, this also makes it nearly impossible for these devices to properly utilize aftermarket ROMs like CyanogenMod, Paranoid Android, and AOKP.
There have been some strides made on the Rockchip front; for instance, a Spanish tablet manufacturer opened up the source for its kernel. In turn, a beta version of Ubuntu surfaced for the SoC. Ithas since grown up, settled down, and now goes by the unfortunate name of PicUntu. The distribution has been making the rounds in the HDMI media stick communities, and is generally well-regarded. While it doesn't include full hardware acceleration, it's full-featured in almost every other aspect.
Still, that's Linux. Most RK3066 owners are stuck using older versions of Android, and the situation doesn't seem like it's going to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, the more modern quad-core RK3188 has yet to see a Linux variant. And that's even more disappointing since, in some cases, RK3188 devices ship with 2 GB of RAM and are far more powerful than the older RK3066.
For these reasons, Chinese SoCs and the devices they power tend to be somewhat devalued compared with their more prominently-branded equivalents from Qualcomm, Samsung, and Nvidia. Even though those familiar names and their partners do sometimes engage in closed-source, locked-down shenanigans, alternatives to their preinstalled versions of Android often do exist. XDA has countless forums for devices with Snapdragon, Exynos, and Tegra SoCs. Yet, the community push for China-based SoCs just isn't as effective. Most owners are left to "alternative solutions" on smaller forums, many of which lack support or are simply administered unprofessionally.
Also worrying, some of these Chinese companies are forking Android. They're doing it to avoid having to appease Google's Open Handset Alliance (OHA), and to ship their own software storefronts instead of Google Play.
Right now, we're seeing two major Android forks coming out of China: LeWa OS and the controversial Aliyun OS, the latter of which has been caught offering pirated versions of for-sale Android games, which could become a big problem down the road.
To make things worse, other China-based Android variants are not being particularly friendly with the open-source community: Flyme and MIUI. Flyme is available on Meizu's range of phones, while MIUI can be found on phones from Xiaomi or as a ROM for other devices. Both skin the OS in much the same way as HTC's Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz. The issue lies in the fact that both of these Chinese operating systems are closed source, which flies in the face of Android's AOSP GPL license. It also sets a worrying precedent that further releases may remain that way, again locking users into non-upgradable software experiences.
That trend probably worries AOSP fans and ROM developers, particularly in regard to how it may affect future China-based SoCs and devices.
Now, let's take a closer look at some of China's homegrown SoCs, starting with Rockchip.