For more than two years, a small group of engineers at Google have been working on software that they hope will replace Android, the world's leading mobile operating system. As the team grows, it must overcome intense internal debates about how the software will work.
The project, known as Fuchsia, was created from scratch to overcome the limitations of Android as more and more personal devices and other devices go online. It's designed to better cover voice interactions and frequent security updates, and to look the same for a range of devices, from laptops to tiny sensors connected to the Internet. Google boss Sundar Pichai has aligned his business in this direction ̵
The following is already known about Fuchsia: Alphabet Inc. began publishing code online in 2016, and the company has managed to get it out there-developer of bits of open-source code. Google has also started experimenting with applications for the system, such as interactive on-screen displays and voice commands for YouTube.
But members of the Fuchsia team have discussed a larger plan that is being reported here for the first time: Create a single operating system that includes all of the company's internal gadgets such as pixel smartphones and smart speakers, as well as third-party devices that are now on Android and another system called Chrome OS, according to the persons familiar with the conversations.
According to one of the staff, engineers said they would like to embed Fuchsia on networked home devices such as voice-activated speakers within three years and then move on to larger devices such as laptops. Ultimately, the team wants to swap its system for Android, the software that powers more than three-quarters of smartphones in the world, people said, who had asked not to be notified about internal matters. The goal is that this will happen over the next half-decade, a person said.
But Pichai and Hiroshi Lockheimer, his deputy running Android and Chrome, have yet to sign up for Fuchsia on any road map, these people said. Executives must be careful to overtake Android as the software supports dozens of hardware partners, thousands of developers and billions of mobile ad dollars.
Android is also the subject of regulatory review and legal disputes for businesses, meaning that changes to the software are closely monitored. European regulators filed a $ 5 billion record antitrust fine on Wednesday over the company's use of mobile software to distribute its services. And within Google, Fuchsia already faces some internal quarrels about how it should be designed and used, especially when it comes to privacy.
In public, the company refers to Fuchsia as an example of its free use of creative products. "Google sees these open-source experiments as an investment in innovation," said a company spokesperson in an email. In 2015, Lockheimer wrote in a blog post that the company was not planning to replace its Chrome operating system with Android, a position the Google spokesman still claims today. However, Fuchsia is more than a Skunkworks undercarriage. Pichai has internally expressed support for the project, said the people who were familiar with the effort. Fuchsia now employs more than 100 people, including revered software engineers such as Matias Duarte, a design manager who led several groundbreaking projects on Google and elsewhere. Duarte only works part-time on the project, said a person who is familiar with the company.
The initiative focuses on better competition with Google's chief smartphone rival, iPhone maker Apple. While Android's market share of around 85 percent is declining by 15 percent, the Apple operating system has a clear lead in areas such as performance, privacy and security, and integration with Apple devices. Another key benefit: Most iPhone users update their phones quickly when Apple releases a new version of the operating system, while less than 10 percent of Android users do. This means that Google's latest services reach only a fraction of Android users.
"Moving from Android could give Google the ability to push the reset button for any errors they made ten years ago," said Jeffrey Grossman, co-founder of Messaging app Confide. "They could possibly reclaim some of the power they have given to equipment manufacturers and telecommunications providers."
Google relies on phone manufacturers and mobile network operators to provide regular OS and security updates to Android devices. These partners do not have the same incentive as Google to sell the latest software: phone manufacturers would rather sell new hardware, and telecom companies would have different priorities. Google recently tried to tackle this problem head-on. In May, the company changed its agreement with mobile phone manufacturers, which asked them to update devices with security patches several times a year.
There are indications that Fuchsia includes even stricter security measures. In the software code published online, engineers built encrypted user keys into the system – a data protection tool that ensures that information is protected every time the software is updated. They also recruited expertise. Nick Kralevich, the senior security engineer for Android for nine years, switched to Fuchsia after his LinkedIn profile in January. In the code pages, the Google developers working on Fuchsia state that the software has not yet been finalized.
At the moment, Android, which was developed as phones are just starting to use touch screens, is not designed for the language type apps that Google sees as the future of computing. This is how Fuchsia is developed with language interaction in the core. The design is also more flexible as it adapts to multiple screen sizes – an attempt to respond to new products such as televisions, automobiles and refrigerators, where Google distributes its software.
Despite the technical pedigree and support for Fuchsia, Google has yet unveiled a real use of the software. Some developers have used the operating system, but no one has established it as the foundation for an app or service on a popular commercial device. Latest code released on a Google Developer site suggested that a YouTube application may be in progress, but no official Google services are running on the system.
The company also has to deal with internal feuds. Some of the principles that Fuchsia developers are following have already prevailed against Google's business model. Google's advertising business is built on the ability to reach users based on their location and activity, and Fuchsia's emerging data protection functions, if implemented, would hinder this important business. According to a person familiar with the matter, there was already at least one conflict between advertising and technology about the security and privacy features of the young operating system. The ad team has prevailed, said this person.
Moving away from Android and Chrome could pose other risks for Google. A huge contingent of independent developers and device manufacturers such as Samsung, Huawei and LG rely on the operating system. Chrome OS is also an important software for web-based laptops that are used by many schools and other organizations. Google can not stop supporting Android and Chrome OS and expects this huge ecosystem to quickly switch to Fuchsia.
Another risk comes from the creation of the new operating system. Android and Chrome OS are based on Linux. The "Linux kernel" is at the heart of Google's current operating systems. It processes instructions that lie between the hardware and the software of smartphones and other devices. Fuchsia uses another kernel called Zircon, which avoids many older technologies under Linux. This could make some existing devices incompatible.
The change of Linux could, however, have advantages for Google. Android's use of the technology distributed by Oracle is at the center of a long, bitter complaint between the two companies. A relocation of Linux would help Google with its case that its software does not rely on Oracle.
Another Benefit for Fuchsia: The project provides a technical challenge to several experienced open source hackers in the business. As so often Google has equipped this tedious, time-consuming company with many years of staff instead of losing it to rivals. One person who spoke to the Fuchsia staff simply described the effort as follows: "It's a senior engineer retention project."