Google is adjusting to life in the EU after the $5.05 billion (€4.34 billion) antitrust fine levied against it by the European Commission earlier this year. Google is still appealing the initial ruling, which found that Google used Android to illegally dominate the search market, but for now Google will comply with the ruling and offer looser licensing agreements to Android device makers.
In a post on the official Google Blog titled “Complying with the EC’s Android decision,” Google outlined a few changes coming to the Google app licensing agreements that it offers to Android OEMs. As you might recall from the numerous times we’ve written about it, this announcement is a change to the secretive “Mobile Application Distribution Agreement” (MADA) document that is a requirement for getting access to the Play Store and other Google apps. What we think of as a commercial “Android” device comes in two parts. The core Android OS is free and open source—anyone can take it and do whatever they want with it without Google’s involvement. If you want the Play Store, Google Maps, Gmail, and all the other Google apps you need to make a viable commercial smartphone, though, you need to talk to Google and sign a MADA, which comes with a ton of restrictions.
The new rules
Google’s new MADA makes three big changes. First, Google’s blog states “Android partners wishing to distribute Google apps may also build non-compatible, or forked, smartphones and tablets for the European Economic Area (EEA).” The last time we saw a MADA document (back in 2014), it had an “anti-fragmentation” clause, which said that any company signing the agreement has to be all-in on Google’s Android. If you produced any Android device without Google’s apps, you got booted from the Google ecosystem. This means that a company like Amazon, which makes forked Kindle devices, could never ship a smartphone with Google apps.
This rule really helped Google keep an iron grip over the Android OEMs, because it stopped them from even experimenting outside of the Google ecosystem. I’m sure some OEMs would want to test the waters of forked Android and launch a device or two without the Google apps, but the anti-fragmentation clause would mean they would immediately be booted from the ecosystem. This made a smooth transition out of the Google ecosystem impossible—it was more like jumping off a cliff, and you had to hope you landed safely at the bottom. Now a mix of forked Android and Google Android will be allowed, but it sounds like it will only be allowed in the EEA. Forked Android is also allowed in China, because Google doesn’t offer Google apps for that country.
Google says it will also unbundle Search and Chrome from the rest of the Google apps. Previously if you wanted even one Google app, like say, the Play Store—which unlocks access to the entire Android app ecosystem—you had to take all of the Google apps as a big bundle. It appears the main Google app bundle is still sticking around, but now OEMs will have the option to skip Chrome and Search, or license Chrome and Search separately. You’ve always been able to install competing apps alongside the Google apps.
The last change is definitely a shocker. Breaking up Google’s licensing agreement is going to have a financial impact on OEMs. As Google puts it, “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.” That’s right, OEMs now have to pay to access the Google apps, but Google doesn’t say how much. The core Android OS, Google says “will remain free and open source.”
The simplest outcome of this ruling is that we could see something like an EU Samsung phone that comes packaged with Bing and the Samsung Browser instead of Google and Chrome. As long as a device like this had the Play Store, you could still install Google Search and Chrome if you wanted. What would be really interesting is a forked device hitting the EU market. The app store free-for-all in China means several companies already have experience building a forked Google ecosystem, and it’s possible we could see Chinese OEMs like Xiaomi, Huawei, and more launch Google-free devices in the EU.
The hard part about forking Android isn’t replicating the Play Store and getting an email client. It’s replicating Google Play Services, a massive set of Google APIs that many developers choose to use in their apps. If, say, a developer wants to embed Google Maps or use Google’s cloud push messaging, that means building a dependency on Play Services into their app. Outside of the Google ecosystem, all of that stops working. So forking Android is still really hard, but at least OEMs can try now, and, if they fail, they can still go back to Google.
Google is still appealing the initial ruling, so this isn’t all written in stone yet.
The new rules go into effect October 29, 2018.