Last week saw a very interesting report coming out about Google. Specifically, about the EU and Google and how the EU are leveling antitrust charges at Google. If this all sounds somewhat familiar, then it should as this is not the first time that the EU has taken aim at Google. However, this particular firing seems to be a little skewed and highlights little understanding of how Android works. In fact, I would almost argue that those who thought up these charges are likely not Android device owners and here's why.
The bulk of the argument against Google seems to be that they have exerted a 'dominance over Android'. It is widely known that Android is 'open source' and it is. You can take Android and do what you want with it. Customize it, change it, repackage it, call it something else, even try and sell it. But what the EU seems to have a problem with is Google’s Android and this is where it gets really interesting. In the shortest of terms, the EU does not like how Google’s Android pushes Google’s services. Like for instance, the Play Store, Maps, Google Search, Chrome and so on. Pretty much, that entire Google folder which comes pre-installed on your device. To be even clearer, it is that Google folder that the EU really has a problem with as they see that as Google dominating Android. Why? Because it appears on pretty much every Android device that is sold. And fair enough, it does. But, and this is a rather big but - that folder is essentially the reason as to why people are buying an Android smartphone to begin with. It is the value behind Android.
We all often talk about ‘stock Android' and how it is better than other forms of Android. One of the reasons it is perceived as better is that it is as Google intended. After all, if you were defining better as more features, then it would be clear that Samsung’s take on Android is better as it comes with all the Google-intended features and more. Likewise, MIUI would be EVEN better as that comes with pretty much every feature ever created. So the value of the Android OS is not defined by its quantity of features or even the quality but the fact that it is as Google intended. What the EU seems to have a problem with is that Google forces Samsung, HTC, LG, and the rest, to legally include and give preference to Google’s apps and services. Hence the permanently homepage positioned Google folder. And Google does do this. They do. And yes, it does benefit Google as their driving source of revenue (more now than ever) is reliant on people opening up that folder, clicking on Chrome (or the Google app, or Maps, or YouTube) and coming into contact with their ads. And if you cut through all the rhetoric, it is that what the EU has a problem with - Google making money off of the services that it creates for its version of Android - not the actual Google apps dominance.
Now keep in mind that none of the manufacturers have to use Google’s version of Android. They don't have to. They can take the source code and go off and build their own completely independent and Google-free version and pack it full of Microsoft, Cyanogen or whomever apps they want. But they do not want to do that. They want what Google is selling and largely because consumers want what Google is selling. In fact, we have routinely heard about companies who do want to create a Google-free version of Android and in time, those versions will come through in their totality and will offer the competition which currently lies at the heart of the EU criticisms of Google. So on the face of it, those leveling these charges already do not understand that the Android competition is there, is growing and will be an issue for Google later on in life. More to the point though and this is where the EU are really showing their lack of Android consumer knowledge - is that they are essentially talking about 'bloatware'. Removing the emphasis on Google apps in lieu of generating an environment where carriers and manufacturers can include any apps they like or more to the point - apps from whomever pays them a big enough licensing fee.
To further this point and for the sake of clarity, we will discuss an AT&T Galaxy S7 branded smartphone. Not for any reason other than it is a smartphone which already comes with a fairly decent number of pre-installed apps from Samsung and AT&T separately. But if we take the EU’s suggestions on board then this would mean that the AT&T Galaxy S7 would not come with all of the Google apps installed (or at least it would not be compelled to come with them). However, this does not mean that you will get a cleaner AT&T Galaxy S7 with less apps, but instead the same Galaxy S7 but with the already heightened level of pre-installed apps, as well as more third-party apps. A third-party browser, maps app, video app and so on. Ones that you did not choose to download or ask to be installed, but ones which have commercial relationships with the manufacturer, in this case Samsung. So the end-user will not be better off in terms of lesser apps and instead we will find ourselves in a murky market where not only the specs, design cues and prices are likely to affect purchasing decisions, but also the apps. Go to Best Buy, check out the latest LG phone, realize this comes with Bing as the search tool, Firefox as the browser and Here as the maps app and decide that’s not for you, that is not what you like, you like Google Search, Chrome, and Maps.
Of course, you could still download these from the Google Play Store and this is where the EU claims become almost laughable, as they are not actually talking about the Play Store. If you are unclear on this, you only have to read the fine print of the announcement the EU made on April 20th. The part which highlights this particular aspect reads as follows “requiring manufacturers to pre-install Google Search and Google's Chrome browser and requiring them to set Google Search as default search service on their devices, as a condition to license certain Google's proprietary apps”. For reference the bolding of Search and Chrome is the EU doing and not mine and is the first indicator of what they really have a problem with - ads and money. The second indicator is the line which reads “as a condition to license certain Google's proprietary apps.” Because what they are really talking about is the fact that manufacturers and carriers are forced to install Chrome and Search if they want to install the Play Store. So they have no issue at all with the Google Play Store having a 'dominant stance over Android' (even though the Play Store is not the only Android app store available) as they understand that it is the heart and soul of the Android app world - in truth, much like the rest of the Google apps including Search and Chrome. Not to mention that the Play Store is also the place where you can already download an alternative search app like Bing, or a browser like Firefox, or a mapping app like Here. The place which offers user's an unparalleled app selection - including all the competitor apps to the dominant Google apps. And that is if you actually want to download and use any of these competitor apps instead of the Google options, which in reality, is not likely to be the majority of Android device owners. If you need anymore proof that the EU is OKAY with the Play Store’s dominance then check out this neat infographic they put together highlighting their argument.
Now, I know some people who prefer Samsung’s version of Android and make use of S Health and a couple of the other dedicated features. But these are few and far between. Android in general, is an operating system which is flooded with app choices and most average Android smartphone device owners are not going to be as app-savvy or even as app-interested in looking for the absolute best app to do something. They want what they know and when it comes to searching the internet it is Google Search, when it comes to accessing the internet, it is Chrome. While there are plenty of arguably better browsers out there, Chrome is the default go-to Android browser app for many and for one simple reason - it is what they are used to. Replacing this with an app from a browser company who have paid to be included on the latest smartphone from a manufacturer (under the EU’s dominance-free view of Android) will lead to one of two outcomes. Either the user simply uses the app that comes pre-installed (which in reality is just another form of paid prioritization) or it will be replaced by the user for something they already know - like Chrome. Either route does not open up a more competitive approach to Android as the EU suggests.
Another criticism raised by the EU reads as follows “giving financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-install Google Search on their devices.” Now, this one is also somewhat amusing as it points out that manufacturers and/or carriers are benefiting from Google incentives. So this point is not based on Google forcing them to include their services but the fact that manufacturers/carriers opt to include the services because it is better for them. Am pretty sure Google could stop any behaviors that are associated with this particular complaint quite easily and the same manufacturers will still include the same Google apps but not receive the financial incentives. And maybe even pass on those costs to the end-user? There is further evidence of just how biased these criticisms are. For instance, Google+ used to be one of those bundled apps in the forsaken Google folder up until last August, when it was no longer required to be a pre-installed Google App. If Google was really dominating by pre-installed apps, then Google+ would have been used by far more people than it currently is and would not have been the subject of continuous reports of how dead the service is. Which leads to the point that the force exerted by Google to include such apps on Android smartphones does not automatically correlate with levels of usage - which is what the EU is alluding to.
What that Google folder and those Google apps (including Search and Chrome) does do, is standardize the Android phone experience. It ensures that at the very least and beneath all the already in use bloatware, there is a selection of core apps which Android device owners will know, likely apps they will want. It allows Android device owners who buy from the biggest manufacturers to be assured that the device they purchase is one which will come with Search as its main internet powered app, as Maps as its main mapping tool, as Chrome as its main browser and YouTube as its main video provider. While that does benefit Google, it should. Not only are they a great suite of apps, but they work seamlessly with Android in general. What they do not do is hinder, hurt or prohibit the Android device owner or the Android experience and they certainly do not stop them from downloading any competitor apps and using them instead.
And this is where the crux of the argument for this article lies. While the EU does likely mean well with this latest charge, they are either extremely unfamiliar with what Android device owners want on their smartphones or they are simply bound to make such accusations in spite of knowing that there is nothing wrong here, due to the EU’s 'one rule for all' policy. For instance, if this was the restaurant, retail, aviation or other business, they would be making the same allegations because it falls within a select group of guidelines. If that is the case, then this is even worse as they are acting while knowing that what they are claiming is incorrect, inaccurate and at the very least, ill-informed. They or you could easily argue that this is an Android-focused site or the person writing this is biased towards Android and therefore would have this opinion... and I would agree with you. I am biased about Android, because I am an Android device owner and therefore, do have some understanding of what I, as a consumer, want from Android... and it is Google Search, Chrome, Maps, and the rest.