It started with a European Union antitrust investigation into Google Shopping in 2017, which resulted in a €2.42-billion fine. This July, Google received yet another fine from the EU: a record €4.34 billion for “serious illegal behavior” due to the way Google requires Android phone manufacturers to bundle their apps, by default, on every device.
Things went quiet for a while after that ruling, with Google appealing the decision. Now, in lieu of a resolution, Android is about to be ripped apart, and it’s going to hurt all of us—not just people living in the European Union.
All this is happening because of a skewed perspective from European regulators about how Android actually works.
Until now, Google distributed Android as a free, open-source operating system that any manufacturer could use, with a catch. If the manufacturer wants to provide access to the Google Play Store, the gateway to billions of Android apps, they must sign a licensing agreement that requires them to bundle Google’s apps along with it and set the company’s search engine as the default.
Phone manufacturers have a clear incentive to use the Play Store: It provides them access to the full library of Android applications, along with the tools that guarantee apps will work across a wide array of hardware without compatibility problems. Called Google Play Services, these tools provide ways for developers to integrate with the Android operating system on a deeper level, as well as allowing access to additional features such as Google’s location services.
Accepting these terms is the price to pay for the cost of Google’s maintenance of the ecosystem, and it has helped maintain a level of consistency for consumers who expect an Android device to ship with a few basic services, like a web browser and messaging app. Google looks after all that for free, and manufacturers are able to take advantage of it to sell their hardware.
Europe has a problem with that because it supposedly suppresses competition—Microsoft’s Bing search engine, I guess. Microsoft can’t pay a company like Nokia to have Bing as the default search engine on its devices because Google won’t license the Play Store without its own search features as the default.
Phone makers can bundle competing apps to their heart’s content, and still do. Samsung has its own storefront on Galaxy phones, for example. The rules only relate to the defaults, and they’re the price of entry: Google maintains and develops Android, pushes the brand forward, and generally does all the heavy lifting. Phone makers benefit from that.
Many of today’s rules and requirements for Android came out of a need for the operating system to be more consistent for the consumer. The earliest iterations of Android were like the Wild West, with devices shipping with all sorts of loopy defaults, alternative browsers, skinned interfaces, and random configurations.
If you bought a Motorola “Android” phone, you had no idea whether it would look or feel the same—let alone be serviced with updates—compared to an HTC “Android” phone. This made it increasingly confusing to buy any device and know what what to expect out of the box.
Google tightened these rules in 2014 as the messy, fragmented experience across Android phone manufacturers made it harder for anyone to compete with the iPhone, which shipped with a slick set of Apple-engineered defaults: “Users generally welcome that kind of consistency across software—just ask an iPhone user—and Google sees this as an opportunity to improve the quality of the Android community that has been plagued by fragmentation,” Recode wrote at the time. “However, it’s an awful lot of Google.”
Apple’s default set of iOS apps were predictable, reliable, and well-designed, while some Android phones might have shipped with four different apps called “photos” that did similar things—except the phone maker was paid by app makers to load the non-Google ones onto the device.
Essentially, all this happened because the open approach was a victim of its own success. Everyone ran off in different directions, and Android became a fragmented disarray of preloaded apps, inconsistent manufacturer skins, and buggy experiences. The rules helped rein that in, setting Android on a better path to compete with Apple.
Fast-forward to today, when we’re about to see the repercussions of the European Union’s Android fine unravel in hard-to-predict directions.
Google just announced that Android licensing will work very differently by the end of the month, completely changing the way the entire model works for phone manufacturers.
“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,” Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president of platforms and ecosystems, wrote in a blog post about the upcoming changes.
To comply with the EU’s ruling, Google will now charge manufacturers a fee for licensing the Play Store, which will provide access to core apps like Gmail, YouTube, and Maps. A separate optional bundle will add Google Search and Chrome.
Android is screwed, and we’re all going to lose as a result.
Device makers have three options after October 29, when the change comes into effect:
- Build devices with the Play Store and all the Google apps.
- Build devices with the Play Store and all the Google apps, except Search and Chrome.
- Build devices without the Play Store or any Google apps and services, or the ability to download them.
Manufacturers will almost certainly pass the additional costs down to you, the consumer, to avoid losing any profit as a result of the new policy. It also means that manufacturers will be quick to take money from app makers to bundle all manner of third-party apps with their new devices, given fresh opportunity to find new revenue. This might mean you get four different browsers on your next device, each of them paying a cut to be there.
Phone makers have been shameless about this before at the expense of the consumer, and they’ll do it again.
While all this is happening, Apple is able to sell the iPhone with defaults that can’t be changed by the consumer at all, locking them into a particular set of tools. The only reason this isn’t a problem for the EU is that Apple built a fully-closed ecosystem, on its own devices, so it isn’t dictating decisions for any third-party manufacturer—because no third party can make an iPhone.
Android, ripped apart by the EU’s ruling, will struggle to compete in a world where every device is an unpredictable slurry of preinstalled detritus and inconsistent experiences.
There’s a hole in the EU’s argument too. If the rules were so suffocating to competition, it’s hard to understand how Amazon is able to do exactly what the EU says is too hard: creating a custom, Google-free version of Android, forgoing the Play Store, and succeeding anyway.
This entire case is eerily similar to how Microsoft v. the EU Commission played out a decade ago. That case resulted in the hellscape that was the “browser choice” popup on Windows, ultimately making things more confusing for everyone. When new users installed Windows in Europe, they were presented with a popup with an array of browsers to choose from, but it just made the experience more convoluted. It did, ultimately, lead to the decline of Internet Explorer—but almost guaranteed Chrome’s ultimate rise to success, ironically.
Like Microsoft, Google became a victim of its own success. Chrome controls 66 percent of browser share, and Google dominates 90 percent of all search. Unlike Microsoft back then, Google already controls the majority of the market, and it’s unlikely that the EU’s antitrust action will do much at all: People want those tools and have come to rely on them.
Targeting Google, killing bundling, and focusing on “competition” on the Android platform misses the entire point: both Search and Chrome are already far too big to fail. This ruling will only end up hurting consumers, moving the profit onto someone else’s bottom line, and pushing more people into Apple’s smartphone monopoly.