Does the $5 billion fine the European Union just levied on Google for anti-trust violations mean anything for people who read ebooks with Android devices? Should we worry that Android is about to become a lot less useful? As the Magic 8-Ball would say, “Answer hazy, ask again later.”
But it does shine a fairly harsh light on some of Google’s business practices, which in turn reveals some interesting things about the way Android has been run lately.
Boiling it down, one of the central issues involves the way Google makes two versions of Android available: Android GMS (Google Mobile Services) and Android AOSP (Android Open Source Project). GMS is the version we mostly know and love from our brand-name Android devices—the Android that comes with the Google Play Store and various Google apps pre-installed. AOSP is the “open” version of Android, which includes the basic OS but none of those Google apps—or the Play Store.
I’ve never run across a vanilla AOSP device, but I gather they are used by rock-bottom-low-cost device vendors, or for other specialized purposes—and Amazon’s FireOS, which powers the Fire tablets, is a fork of the AOSP code. Apparently some other manufacturers have expressed interest in using FireOS, but haven’t been able due to Google’s licensing deals.
Anyway, Google provides the OS to many vendors for free—but if they want to include the Google Play Store, with its access to Google’s apps and applications, they have to set aside some of their devices’ storage space to bundle Google’s suite of Android apps with it: Gmail, Chrome, Google Play Games, etc. And, of course, the Google Search Engine. And as if that wasn’t enough, Google also pays device manufacturers to make Google the exclusive search engine bundled onto their devices.
The EU thinks it isn’t kosher that Google is using the popularity of its OS to give its search engine this big advantage. It also thinks that iOS isn’t enough of a competitor to Android to make a difference, because Apple devices cost more and have a different target audience, suffer from the vendor lock-in problem where users can’t easily take their apps and content with them from one platform to another, and also use Google’s search engine as their default search tool anyway.
It’s not as if complaints over bundling are anything new. Remember when Microsoft got in all that trouble because it was bundling its own browser, Internet Explorer, with Windows? And remember how that worked out—the Justice Department slapping Microsoft on the wrist and telling it to play nicer, and nothing really changing in the end?
It’s also worth remembering that, while $5 billion might seem like a record fine, it only amounts to about two weeks’ worth of Google’s overall revenue—and it would probably be a tax write-off anyway.
Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai has made a blog post rebutting the EU decision, insisting that Android does compete with iOS, and the money Android pays device manufacturers for sticking Google on them makes it possible for them to make those devices economically enough to sell.
There are a lot of other glittering generalities like that, and all the self-justification you’d expect from the losing side in an argument. (The way Pichai claims Android has presented more choice, not less, reminds me uncomfortably of how Apple and the Agency 5 publishers insisted that their agency price-fixing was promoting competition by making it possible for more stores to enter the business knowing Amazon couldn’t undersell them.)
One thing I can’t forgive, though, is the little animated graphic saying “It’s easy to remove a preloaded app and replace it with an alternative.” As I noted in my review of the Nook Tablet 7, far too often these apps can’t be uninstalled—you can disable them and remove their updates, but that won’t get you back the space the base app takes up. And when you’re dealing with a device that only gives the user access to 3 GB out of the 8 GB of storage it supposedly comes with, every little bit counts!
It’s also worth noting that this decision was based on the past two years of Google’s behavior, but hasn’t necessarily taken Google’s recent behavior into consideration. In particular, I’m thinking of the way Google cracked down on allowing non-GMS-licensed Android devices to access the Android store back in March. If your device’s manufacturer didn’t buy the rights to include Google Play on its devices, Google Play won’t work from them. It’s possible for individual users to sign up for “custom ROM” exemptions to let them use the app store on unauthorized hardware, but it’s not easy.
Clearly, Google wants to convince as many manufacturers as possible to pay for a license; why else would they make the process for signing up for an exception to the policy so arcane? S
igning up for an exemption requires finding an obscure hexadecimal serial number on your device, then converting it to decimal yourself before entering it into a web form. (Really, Google? You couldn’t afford the couple of extra lines of code it would have taken to add a hex-to-dec converter into your web form?) Update: I’ve since been informed, via comment below, that this is no longer true.
Now Pichai is making noises like how if they have to pay this fine, and do the things the EU is telling them to bring them into compliance, they might not be able to offer AOSP Android free to device manufacturers in Europe anymore. Which feels like kind of a veiled threat, and is probably too bad if there really are a lot of budget device manufacturers who actually use AOSP without relying on Google’s app stores. But the only non-Google variant of Android I’ve ever run across personally was Amazon with its Fire, and that seems to be a bit of a special case since Amazon went to so much trouble to build its own store and suite of apps. Though I’ve been told that if you use stores like FDroid, you can largely get by without any of Google’s flagship apps.
Every other Android device I’ve used had the Google stuff bundled in—even if they technically weren’t supposed to. My Teclast Kindow came with them preinstalled, even though if you loaded the Play Store and checked the menu it cheerfully admitted it was uncertified. And the Onyx Boox Max had the Play Store, even if it had hardly any of the other Google apps that should have been required to be bundled with it. From that perspective, it doesn’t seem likely there will be much change. If they can no longer charge for the app store, but can charge for the OS, is that really going to make much difference? The manufacturer is paying something extra either way.
However, I’ve heard that budget AOSP devices are big in Asian and other non-US markets. If that includes markets in Europe, and Google starts making them have to pay for the OS, that could effectively torpedo any brand that doesn’t have enough money for those fees, or at least make them raise their device prices.
Will this fine stand up on appeal? That remains to be seen. Even if it does, though, I have a hard time imagining that much will change in the Android devices and apps I currently use, because the devices I use are either ones that pay Google for the privilege, or else ones I properly registered with them. I’ve never even encountered an AOSP-powered device without recourse to the Google Play store.
All the same, I’m not terribly pleased that Google seems to be intent on slowly forcing further restrictions on devices, such as cutting unregistered ones off from using the Play Store. I would think that, if they wanted more people to use their platform, they would make it more open, not less—but then again, Android already owns about 80% of the mobile market, so maybe they’ve reached the point where they feel like tightening up.
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