Report: Google 'tightening the screws' on Android manufacturers

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Android has been getting increasingly less “open” over time as Google has sought to exert more control and put its own services front and center. A report from The Information adds more concrete details to this, revealing specifics of some confidential Android contracts. 

Google is apparently ramping up the number of Google apps, such as Gmail, Drive, and Chrome, that must be preinstalled on devices. The apps also must have more prominent home screen placement and accompany a Google Search widget. 

The story behind the story: Android has long been touted as a more “open” operating system, with third-party hardware makers able to customize it to their liking. Yet that hasn’t worked out so well for Google, which doesn’t make money by selling Android devices. Its revenue comes from consumers using Google Search and its other products that tie into the company’s advertising empire. Google has sought to reign in the vast fragmentation of Android interfaces and third-party apps that are getting in the way of its own services, and fragmenting the user experience.

All Google, all the time

Google is clearly looking to push manufacturers to build phones that are closer to stock Android and put its apps front and center. For example, the report says the Google Play Store and a folder with core apps must greet you first thing on the home screen. A swipe up from the home button must also trigger Google Search, just as it does on Nexus devices. 

While manufacturers described the new rules to The Information as “tightening the screws,” in many ways it works out better for consumers. Some Android manufacturers like Samsung put heavy-handed custom interfaces on their devices, placing their own browser, email, note-taking apps and music players on them. Sometimes these apps are less robust and don’t work as well as what Google built. Even when they do, they often operate differently, making it difficult for Android users to share advice or help each other. Such confusion can drive people away from Android into the arms of the user-friendly iPhone, where the experience is uniform across all devices.

Google also is dangling the carrot of more revenue in front of manufacturers, offering a cut of the funds from Google Search or Google Play by not preinstalling competing products, like Yahoo or Bing search applications.

It should be noted that these rules typically affect only those phones that want to use Google’s services, including the all-important Google Play store. The AOSP (Android Open Source Project) allows device makers to alter Android much more thoroughly, without many of Google’s core services; Amazon’s Kindle operating system is a good example of this.

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