Android is Open, Google’s certified Android isn’t but didn’t we know that already?

BY Rita El Khoury

Published 13 Feb 2014


The debate over the open nature of the Android ecosystem gets re-ignited every couple of months thanks to a “new” piece of information surfacing with details of Google’s iron fist on the operating system. The latest revelation comes to us courtesy of the Wall Street Journal in a report that explains how device manufacturers must abide by Google’s terms to get access to YouTube, the Play Store and other Google apps.

Recent documents have revealed that OEMs who want to release an Android device with any of Google’s services must sign a “Mobile Application Distribution Agreement” whereby they agree to pre-install a dozen Google applications on their phones and make Google the default search engine. The European Commission is looking into these terms as part of an antitrust investigation. The cause of concern in Europe is a law that requires companies with dominant market share to promote competition which Google’s terms are suspected to be violating.

People will recall that a similar case was brought between the European Commission and Microsoft last decade. Microsoft was forcing manufacturers to bundle Internet Explorer and set it as the default browser on their PCs, and the case was resolved with the company agreeing to present users with a screen to download and select another browser as default upon first opening Internet Explorer on Windows computers.

However, this new development doesn’t change anything to the “open” nature of the Android operating system, as the Wall Street Journal article would have you believe. Android is open but if manufacturers want to get official access to Google’s services, they have to follow Google’s rules. We should have all been under the assumption that an agreement of this nature was underway, because it’s hard to imagine the company investing millions of man-hours developing their own services, offering them for “free” and letting manufacturers simply override them. Google’s most profitable business is in Search, so the idea that it would allow you to sell a Google-certified Android device but with Bing or Yahoo set as the default search engine is ludicrous.

As a matter of fact, to avoid Google’s grasp on the software, some manufacturers have chosen to take the naked — or AOSP — version of Android and develop their own services on top of it, like Amazon and its Kindle range, or Nokia and its rumored upcoming Android device. That’s testament to the fact that Android is indeed open, and should you choose to, you can avoid all of Google’s requirements.

On the other side of the spectrum, most manufacturers like Samsung, LG and HTC, have chosen to benefit from Google’s extensive services. That doesn’t stop them from developing parallel services to Google’s — like S-Voice, Samsung Apps, LG SmartWorld — and pre-installing them on the devices as well, alongside the required Google ones.

If we really wanted to put one nail in the coffin for Android’s Open Source Project, it wouldn’t be this “Mobile Application Distribution Agreement” but Google’s slow but not-so-subtle switch from developing AOSP to favoring its own apps. Updates to the Browser, Gallery, Keyboard, Music Player, and even the Settings have been gradually abandoned in the last couple of years, with the company’s focus switching instead to Chrome, Google+ Photos, Google Keyboard, Google Play Music and Google Play Services. Soon, AOSP will just be a bundle of antiquated apps, and the choice to not comply with Google to get access to their newer apps will be quite penalizing for any OEM.