Recently, a developer of the popular home screen and app launcher app Lawnchair (I love the pun and always have) decided to cut ties with the team after it was discovered that the app used code generated by Google’s Pixel Launcher ” was stolen .
I hate addressing developer dramas. People, whether they are software developers, car mechanics or anything else, are allowed to have whatever expectations they want from their work environment. If a developer doesn’t want to be associated with a group using copyrighted code without permission, we should respect that and move on.
And that’s about all I’ll say about the developer who decided it was best to part ways. Good luck to you and never stop doing what you think is right.
But about the “steal” stuff. You probably noticed that I put the word in quotation marks as if to indicate that it’s not the right word to describe what happened. I think it’s difficult to call it “stealing” for a number of reasons.
Is it still there?
So it’s clear that the Lawnchair team didn’t have permission from Google to use the code from the Pixel Launcher. It’s also clear that Google doesn’t seem to mind that it happened. What is not so clear is what actually happened.
Google provides code for a 100% working app launcher and home screen app for Android phones. It’s right there in the AOSP, and anyone can take it and do whatever they want with it. The problem is that it lacks many of the features that people expect from an app of this type.
Google does not share the code for its Pixel Launcher application. It used to be available on the Play Store for every phone, but even that has been stopped. If you want to use the Pixel Launcher 100% “legally”, you have to buy a Pixel phone. (Those annoying quotes again.)
Or – and this is the most important part of the whole mess – if you want the Pixel Launcher’s features on every phone, install a third-party replacement that will “copy” it well and make it even better. Like a garden chair.
Yes, I say so we are the reason why code is sometimes stolen. Note no quotation marks.
It’s trivial to reverse engineer an Android app and get a really good idea of the actual code used to create it. You can’t always get a full version of everything, and there are many ways to make it difficult. However, if you have a computer and a few hours to follow an online tutorial, you can break almost any app down to its most basic parts.
This is nothing new, nor is it a unique Android thing. Developers and hackers have always been reverse engineering software, and some very prominent groups in the tech industry think it’s okay to do so. On the other hand, it’s probably 100% illegal to do anything within the European Union if you want to make something out of it yourself. I’m trying to say it’s a big fat gray area.
I won’t preach because I did. I got tired of waiting for HTC to do something I wanted the company to do, so I dug in and made it myself, and then shared my work with anyone who wanted it. A lot of people reading Android websites either made it themselves or installed something from someone who made it.
The avalanche chair situation is similar. The app uses its own codebase, but with more and more people wanting specific functionality, the easy way to achieve this was to decompile the Pixel Launcher, see how Google does it, and then either emulate it or just copy the code use.
is this theft I don’t know, I’m a nerd, not a lawyer. I’d say yes it’s “stealing” but it’s not a big deal because of Google’s reaction. I’ll stop using the quotation marks now.
Protecting your copyright is a real thing
The folks at Google who worked hard to make Pixel Launcher do what people enjoy deserve credit for their work. Writing software is a difficult way to make a living, and most of your workday can feel like a failure until you get it right.
We do not automatically earn Pixel Launcher features unless we purchase a Pixel phone. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want them, just that we’re not entitled to them because we didn’t pay for them because we decided the Pixel wasn’t the best phone for us.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to Google to protect its intellectual property, and it didn’t do that. Google either knew or could have known that Lawnchair was using proprietary private code owned by the Pixel team. If it didn’t know, now it knows.
Until Google sends a cease and desist letter to the Lawnchair team, fuck it. Apps like Lawnchair benefit Google more than anyone because it is another app that people enjoy using Android. More people using Android means more people are using Google Play, and that means more money in Alphabet’s accounts.
Reverse engineering and hacking (the good kind) has been an Android thing since the beginning. I respect a developer who takes a stand and follows their conscience, but I also won’t write off another developer who has made something too easy — and historically accepted – By the way, by looking at Google’s own work.
This will be resolved by the Lawnchair team and we’ll forget about it. Then something similar will happen and we will remember it. It’s the Android way.