Google has announced that is shaking up how its suite of apps are distributed through Android in Europe.
The news comes after the Alphabet subsidiary was hit with a $5 billion fine by EU antitrust regulators, though the internet giant is in the process of appealing that fine.
The story so far
Way back in May 2015, the European Commission (EC) formally accused Google of using its dominance to bias search results, which was the result of a four-year investigation into the matter. Simultaneously, the EC revealed it was launching another probe into Android regarding the way it reportedly forced smartphone and tablet manufacturers to bundle some Google apps, including Gmail, Google Search, and Google Play, on Android phones. Europe filed formal antitrust objections against Google and Android in April 2016.
Google has long argued that manufacturers are free to do as they please with Android — and it is correct, because Android is released under an open source license. As we’ve seen, Amazon has used a forked version of Android on its Kindle Fire tablets through which it sets its own default apps. But doing so limits Amazon’s access to certain native Google apps, such as YouTube. In short, if a manufacturer wants to use Android and preinstall the aforementioned Google apps, it must use the whole suite — it can’t cherry-pick which ones it uses. If it wants to include Google Maps, Gmail, and YouTube, it has to include Google Play, Chrome, and Google Search as default too. This is what Europe deemed to be anti-competitive, and it is the exact same complaint that Google eventually lost out in Russia about.
Fast forward to today, and Google has finally unveiled its solution to Europe’s complaints while it appeals its gargantuan fine: a new licensing model for manufacturers who wish to distribute phones and tablets in the European Economic Area (EEA) with its apps installed. For the record, the EEA constitutes European Union (EU) countries and a handful of other markets such as Iceland.
Starting from October 29, 2018, Google said it will now allow manufacturers to distribute Google apps on forked versions of Android in the EEA.
“We’re updating the compatibility agreements with mobile device makers that set out how Android is used to develop smartphones and tablets,” noted Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president for platforms and ecosystems, in a blog post. “Going forward, Android partners wishing to distribute Google apps may also build non-compatible, or forked, smartphones and tablets for the European Economic Area.”
However, this will come at a cost. Google will now separate Google Search and Chrome from its other suite of apps, such as Maps, YouTube, Gmail and the Google Play store, and offer separate licenses for each “bundle” which it will charge for. However, it seems that manufacturers who do sign up to preinstall Google services such as Play, Gmail, Maps, and YouTube will be able to install Google Search and Chrome for free.
This fundamentally changes how Android can be distributed in Europe, as it gives manufacturers more options in terms of the default apps they install — they can make Bing and Firefox the default search engine and browser if they like, and still gain access to Google’s suite of apps, including the Google Play store. But they will have to pay for the privilege — how much is not clear, though.
Ultimately, this model is all about regaining revenue they may lose from no longer having as many Google Search and Chrome installations.
“Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA,” Lockheimer added.
The theory always was that Europe could lead the way on Android’s great unbundling, and today’s news certainly indicates that is the case. But it is also worth noting that Google services are hugely popular, and many manufacturers likely won’t want to mess too much with the state-of-play on Android. But it does give them more freedom to monetize by developing their own app stores, for example, or securing more lucrative deals with other third-party players.
“We’ll be working closely with our Android partners in the coming weeks and months to transition to the new agreements,” Lockheimer continued. “And of course, we remain deeply committed to continued innovation for the Android ecosystem.”
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