Fuchsia, a possible replacement for Google’s Android mobile operating system, is being designed to better accommodate voice interactions and frequent security updates and to look the same across a range of devices, from laptops to tiny internet-connected sensors.
For more than two years, a small and stealthy group of engineers within Google has been working on software that they hope will eventually replace Android, the world’s dominant mobile operating system. As the team grows, it will have to overcome some fierce internal debate about how the software will work.
The project, known as Fuchsia, was created from scratch to overcome the limitations of Android as more personal devices and other gadgets come online. It’s being designed to better accommodate voice interactions and frequent security updates and to look the same across a range of devices, from laptops to tiny internet-connected sensors.
Google started quietly posting Fuschia code online in 2016, and the company has let outside app developers tinker with bits of the open-source code. Google has also begun to experiment with applications for the system, such as interactive screen displays and voice commands for YouTube.
But members of the Fuchsia team have discussed a grander plan: creating a single operating system capable of running all the company’s in-house gadgets, like Pixel phones and smart speakers, as well as third-party devices that now rely on Android and another system called Chrome OS, according to people familiar with the conversations.
According to one of the people, engineers have said they want to embed Fuchsia on connected home devices, such as voice-controlled speakers, within three years, then move on to larger machines such as laptops. Ultimately the team aspires to swap in their system for Android, the software that powers more than three quarters of the world’s smartphones, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters. The aim is for this to happen in the next half decade, one person said.
But top Google executives have yet to sign off on any road map for Fuchsia, these people said. The executives have to move gingerly on any plan to overhaul Android because the software supports dozens of hardware partners, thousands of developers — and billions of mobile-ad dollars.
Android is also the subject of regulatory scrutiny and legal squabbles for the company, which means any changes to the software will be closely watched. European regulators last week levied a record $5 billion antitrust fine against the company for using the mobile software to spread its services. And within Google, Fuchsia already faces some internecine squabbles over how it should be designed and deployed, particularly when it comes to privacy features.
The initiative is focused on better competing with Google’s chief smartphone rival, iPhone maker Apple. While Android’s roughly 85 percent market share crushes Apple’s 15 percent, the Apple operating system has a leg up in areas like performance, privacy and security, and integration across Apple devices. Another key advantage: Most iPhone users quickly update their phones when Apple releases a new version of the operating system, while less than 10 percent of Android users do. This means Google’s latest services only reach a fraction of Android users.
“Switching away from Android could provide Google the opportunity to hit the reset button on any mistakes they believe they made a decade ago,” said Jeffrey Grossman, co-founder of messaging app Confide. “They might be able to regain some power that they’ve ceded to device manufacturers and telecom carriers.”
Google relies on phone makers and wireless network operators to push regular operating system and security updates to Android devices. These partners don’t have as much incentive as Google to distribute the latest software: Phone makers would rather sell new hardware, and telecom companies have other priorities. Google has tried to address this problem head-on recently. In May, the company modified its agreement with handset makers requiring them to update devices with security patches multiple times a year.
There are some signs that Fuchsia is incorporating even tighter security measures. In the software code posted online, the engineers built encrypted user keys into the system — a privacy tool that ensures information is protected every time the software is updated.
At the moment, Android, which was developed when phones were just beginning to use touch screens, is also not built to handle the type of voice-enabled apps that Google sees as the future of computing. So Fuchsia is being developed with voice interaction at its core. The design is also more flexible in that it adjusts to multiple screen sizes — an attempt to cater to the new products, such as televisions, cars and refrigerators, where Google is spreading its software.
Despite the engineering pedigree and support for Fuchsia, Google has yet to unveil a real-world use of the software. Some developers have toyed with the operating system, but none have set it as the foundation for an app or service on a popular commercial device.
The company must also settle some internal feuds. Some of the principles that Fuchsia creators are pursuing have already run up against Google’s business model. Google’s ads business relies on an ability to target users based on their location and activity, and Fuchsia’s nascent privacy features would, if implemented, hamstring this important business.