I dislike using the word disrupt in startup circles, I think it’s overused and in the majority of cases completely inappropriate as well. So I’m a little annoyed with Russian search giant Yandex that I can’t think of a better word to describe their announcement of Yandex.Kit, a new firmware for Android smartphones.
What needs to be understood about Android is that it is split into two halves. One side being the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP) and the other, while having a couple of names, is most often called Google Mobile Services (GMS). The AOSP side is the basic operating system based on Linux and the bare essentials to have something you could generously call a phone. GMS is where everything else lives that makes the phone into a smartphone, and contains all the apps and services you don’t even think about but just assume would come with an Android phone; Maps, Search, Gmail, Chrome, Play Store, and so much more.
Now the AOSP side is free, and any mobile phone manufacturer can use it to get themselves a working phone, but if you want all the other stuff then you need to get into a licensing agreement with Google and pay. Who would want a smartphone without access to an App store and Maps these days? Nobody. It’s a smart plan by Google, they give the impression that Android is still a free and open platform, but if you want to release a phone with the Android everyone expects to find these days then you need to pay.
Peter Bright writing for Ars Technica really got to the heart of this situation and has some excellent analysis on why neither Microsoft or Nokia should be looking to Android as the solution to their mobile platform woes. For a more in depth look at that situation I highly recommend his article. The thing is, I don’t think anyone pointed this out to Yandex, or if they did then the Russian internet company and search engine saw an opportunity where everyone else saw a wall.
What Yandex are providing in Yandex.Kit is the GMS side of the package that mobile manufacturers would normally have to pay Google to include with their phones. It includes Yandex made maps, search, web browser and webmail apps, a 3D launcher and an all important app store. All the functionality that Google have stripped out of the base Android platform, Yandex appear to have developed solutions for.
The amount of effort and work that must have gone into producing this is staggering, which only makes the announcement that Yandex.Kit is being offered for free an even more shocking statement. The assumption must be that Yandex plan to make their money back through wide uptake of their platform and subsequent profits generated through end users paying for apps on their app store.
Yandex promise that their solution works well on most versions of Android and that since .Kit is a suite of mobile components phone manufacturers can pick the pieces they want to create a smartphone that matches the vision they have.
Huawei and Explay, both early adopters of alternative Android software, will be showing off their devices with Yandex.Kit on board at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today (24th February). Their phones will be available to customers in Russia in March where Yandex is the most popular search engine and a well know brand.
For curious international customers Yandex have noted that the Yandex.Kit can be greatly customised. Yandex.Store can be branded for any mobile operator or device maker with their own apps featured; Yandex.Browser's search string is to be changed for any search provider carrier that an OEM is partnered with; and quick access tabs (called Tableau) are opened for an OEM's or operator's websites.
It will be interesting to see over the coming year how this firmware offering competes in the budget space that Yandex must surely be targeting. Nokia have today announced their own tweaked version of Android running on a new range of budget phones, while newer entrants to the mobile space like Jolla are also competing in the same market. Can Yandex’s software offering compete with Nokia’s combined hardware and software experience? Consumers will answer that question.