Europe has been investigating Google Search for so long now, that the filing of formal antitrust charges last Wednesday was almost anticlimactic.
But there was one part that stuck out. In addition to filing formal charges related to Google Search, the European authorities also said they were launching an investigation into Android.
This is new
European authorities are looking at three things:
- Did Google force or incentivise Android phone and tablet makers to “exclusively pre-install Google’s own applications or services”?
- Did Google prevent smartphone and tablet makers who wanted to install Google applications and services on some devices from shipping “modified and potentially competing versions of Android (known as ‘Android forks’) on other devices”?
- Did Google tie or bundle certain Google applications and services that shipped with Android devices, with other Google applications, services, and APIs?
This sounds complicated — and it is — because there are really two Androids.
There’s the Android Open Source Platform, or AOSP — let’s call it “open” Android.
Open Android provides a fully functional mobile operating system and some scaffolding to build certain types of apps. Google develops open Android and publishes the code under an open source licence, meaning anybody can take it and do whatever they want with it.
Amazon used this platform to build the Kindle Fire and Fire Phone. Many Chinese handset makers like Xiaomi use it to build smartphones and tablets. Cyanogen is using it to create a separate version of Android that Google doesn’t control.
Google makes no money from these versions of Android, which don’t include any Google apps or links back to Google services (or Google ads).
But there’s also another Android, which is most commonly called the Google Mobile Services platform, or GMS. This is the version of Android you get on most phones from big sellers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Lenovo. Let’s call it “full” Android.
The full version of Android is built on top of open Android. But it includes all kinds of important things that a modern mobile platform needs, like location services, in-app purchasing, services for businesses to help secure devices, and much more. Third-party apps take advantage of these services. There are also a bunch of Google applications, like Chrome, that ship with full Android.
Full Android is documented as much as it needs to be for developers to build apps, but it isn’t open source. It’s closer to Microsoft Windows — a proprietary platform that Google wants everybody to use.
Google doesn’t charge for the full version of Android, as Microsoft does with Windows. But the built-in Google services help collect data that Google uses to target ads, and the bundled apps and services can include ads themselves.
If Google is ever going to turn Android into a real money-making business, it’s going to be the full version of Android that does it.
So why keep maintaining the AOSP?
There are several reasons it made sense a few years ago:
- Defence. The original reason Google bought Android in 2005 was to make sure no other mobile platform would monopolize the mobile market and block Google services from mobile devices. (Ironically, Google was worried about Microsoft; nobody saw the iPhone coming at first.)
- To get partners on board. In 2007, as the iPhone just started taking off, Google joined up with a bunch of partners to create the Open Handset Alliance, which would sell and promote Android as an alternate platform. (The big Android phone makers and many carriers are members.) But partners might have worried that they would have ended up like the PC makers who adopted Windows in the 1990s — stuck with decreasing marginal hardware businesses while Google mopped up whatever value accrued to the platform. As long as the AOSP existed, Google could point to it and say “hey, if you don’t like the way we’re driving Android, here’s the source code, go do your own version.”
- Antitrust. As Android began to dominate the smartphone market, Google could point to the AOSP and maintain that it wasn’t really exercising that much control over Android at all — indeed, that was Google’s first argument in its blog post responding to the EU’s investigation: “It’s an open-source operating system that can be used free-of-charge by anyone — that’s right, literally anyone.”
But none of those reasons really make sense anymore. The idea of needing defence seems absurd: Android’s global market share, which is around 75% if you include “forked” AOSP-only Android, or 55% if you don’t. Either way, it’s way ahead of number two, Apple’s iOS, which has about 20% market share.
Google got its partners on board, but today most of the value of the Android platform for these partners is in the bundled services and apps included in “full” Android — the Google Play store, Google Maps, and so on. If any handset maker wanted to create a version of Android as good as Google’s, they’d have to build or partner to create equivalents to all these services. (Amazon has come closest, and only its tablets have been successful so far, thanks to the lead-in from its legacy e-reader business. The first Fire Phone was pretty much a flop.)
As far as antitrust goes, it’s pretty clear that the European Union understands the difference between the two Androids and is targeting the full version. By definition, the AOSP version of Android doesn’t force partners to do anything. The EU even mentions “forked” Android in its points about the investigation.
So why keep developing a platform that no longer serves any strategic purpose?
Meanwhile, Android is facing a major inflection point. The last version, Lollipop, was released in November and is only on 5% of all Android phones (actually less, as Google’s measurements exclude very old versions). Apple’s last update, iOS 8, was at over 70% adoption at the same phase in its lifecycle. Plus, after years of gaining market share over iOS, Apple’s latest iPhones have reversed the trend, and Android market share is slipping in most countries and worldwide in total.
Google should start acting like Android is a real business, create its own proprietary fork, and insist that all phones that want to use Google services and Android branding use that fork. Even a fully proprietary version of Android will still offer way more value than competitors like Windows Phone just because of the huge number of available apps.
It’s not like app makers are going to abandon a platform that’s already on a billion phones in the wild — and Google’s cloud services, like Gmail and Maps and Google Now, are actually pretty excellent and very hard to replace.
And if the world really needs an open source mobile platform, Google should pull a John Galt and let someone else carry the ball for a while.