Who Will Become Android's Red Hat?

Android really could use a Red Hat.

By this, I mean Android could use a firm that the enterprise and bespoke hardware vendors can turn to for Android firmware, just as Red Hat, particularly in Linux’s early days of adoption, was the go-to firm for enterprise Linux. While other groups had Linux distros, and later firms added an enterprise push (e.g., Canonical), Red Hat was the first serious firm to say “we’re here for business, and will help ordinary consumers and developers some along the way”.

What might a Red Hat for Android look like?

  • It would have its own Android distro, based off of the AOSP, with a focus on security, privacy, and clean IP (i.e., no blatant copyright infringement with respect to what it distributes)

  • It would sell this distro into enterprises, along with tools to allow the enterprises themselves to “remix” the distro, adding in their own stuff (e.g., VPN apps and configurations, enterprise-specific apps)

  • It would create apps with a business focus that it would sell (or simply include) in the distro (e.g., privacy-enhanced home screens)

  • It would help enterprises get their remixed distro onto hardware, ranging from white-label devices to major-brand ones (where supported)

  • It would make simplified versions of these tools and services available publicly, for brand-building as much as anything else (the equivalent of Red Hat’s Fedora), particularly for those firms looking to create dedicated “kiosk” devices (e.g., a restaurant wanting its menus and ordering to be on dedicated tablets)

  • It would add in other services (e.g., consulting and training) to be able to fill in whatever gaps its enterprise customers required

  • It would try to become enough of a friend of the ROM modding community that ROM modders would help advance the firm’s Android distro, particularly in cases where they cannot contribute back to the AOSP due to the constraints of Google’s development practices

I am of the firm belief that enterprises would flock to this solution. Right now, enterprises are trying to skate by with using whatever device the employee already owns, but there will be enough high-profile security breaches that they will sour on this approach eventually. Given a choice between being stuck with the firmware from Apple, Microsoft, or an Android manufacturer, or having one that they have visibility into and more control over, enterprises will tend towards the latter. After all, enterprise IT departments do that for just about everything else.

Who might become the Red Hat of Android?

  • It could be an existing device manufacturer who spins off a subsidiary that takes on this model. The parent firm would stick with the low-margin hardware business, while the subsidiary would be in the higher-margin software business. Eventually, they might float an IPO for the subsidiary (“unlocking the latent value” – Wall Street types love this stuff)

  • It could be somebody with deep experience in enterprise product and service sales that adds a division or outright pivots into the mobile space. An example would be Red Hat itself: one would imagine that they have to be thinking about how they can enter into mobile.

  • It could be some new high-flying venture-backed startup, poaching a few engineers from Google and device manufacturers, and perhaps the ROM modding community, to serve as the core team.

  • It could be the result of a takeover of RIM – the last remaining substantial enterprise platform – where they dump RIM’s operating systems, repackage Blackberry Messenger as an app, and switch wholesale to Android, to try to leverage the remaining brand recognition and enterprise sales and marketing teams.

It is unlikely that Google itself will become the Red Hat of Android, insofar as enterprises have not exactly been Google’s cup of tea in terms of a business focus. Theoretically, it could be a Google spinoff, but I can’t think of any Google spinoffs, beyond the traditional employee-leaves-to-found-a-startup model.

With every successful platform (Google, Apple) having headed in the consumer direction, and every successful enterprise-focused platfom either dying (RIM) or moving to the consumer segment themselves (Microsoft), there seems to be a big market opportunity here. With luck, a firm that succeeds in this segment really will be “Android’s Red Hat”, where the business works in concert with the larger Android ecosystem, as opposed to against it.

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