Open-source software is best-known for better privacy features and extensive community support. Android enthusiasts frequently use the open-source card while comparing it to closed operating systems like iOS or Tizen, but is Android really open-source?
If you are an Android user, you must have noticed some constants in the UI irrespective of the brand you choose. For starters, you will not find any Android smartphone that comes without YouTube or Google pre-installed. Isn’t it strange that no OEM ever thought of replacing Google as their primary search engine? Is it a case of collective loss of creative thinking, or is there something sketchy going on behind the scenes?
Spoiler alert! It is not a lack of creativity amongst OEMs but a result of Google’s multiple restrictive policies. Here are a few incidents which will make you wonder what’s really open in the so-called open-source Android!
Google hides OEM’s custom gesture navigation systems to promote its own
Google’s navigation gestures have received mixed reactions, but they are largely helpful and easy to use. You may love it or hate it, but that’s not an excuse to let Google stop users from trying different options. Google claims that this will help Android maintain standard gesture navigation settings across all devices.
According to the GMS (Google Mobile Services) agreement, any Android device that uses GMS and comes with Android 10 will have to abide by the new set of rules laid down by the tech giant. The GMS agreement mentions that all the OEMs can either ship with the good-old three-button navigation system or Google’s gesture navigation system by default. Please note that OEMs can still add their gesture navigation profiles in the UI, but they cannot include them in the setup wizard as per the GMS agreement.
In simpler terms, the end-user can technically use a different navigation system. Still, Google has almost made this option unavailable for people that run their phones on the default settings.
Google is the default search engine for every Android Device
Google leads the search engine business by a considerable margin, and for most people, it has become a synonym with search engines. Google’s dominance has come to a point where the users might find it challenging to switch to other alternatives, but it’s not entirely because of Google’s feature set. The tech giant tries its best to mandate Google as the default search engine on as many devices as possible.
It should be a no-brainer that Google doesn’t make it easy for new players to come into the picture due to its dominant policies. Google mandates OEMs shipping Android to only use Google as the default search engine across the platform, which really makes it hard for any other player to showcase itself to the users.
As a result, users who wish to pay and opt-out of Google’s data collection model still need to stick to the same model. We can all agree that monopolies are never good for the end-user, and Google has undoubtedly turned its search engine platform into one.
As a matter of fact, the European Union and the Australian ACCC have taken note of the recent happenings in the search engine business and called Google for killing the competition through its actions. According to the ACCC, many local search engines offer their consumers an entirely different feature set. Google’s forced monopoly seriously hampers the growth of any such competition and needs regulation.
Alongside slapping a fine of $5 billion in 2019, the EU directed Google to install a search engine choice screen to allow users to pick among the different search engines available in the region. Although Google did implement it, search engines had to participate in an auction to be included in one of the top five positions. As a result, smaller players like DuckDuckGo complained that the pay-to-play auction was a flawed and partial method that would give more prominent players like Google and Bing more authority over them.
In 2021, Google announced the expansion of the choice screen to other parts of Europe outside the EU.
Meanwhile, the ACCC also recommended OEMs to develop and implement a mandatory choice screen before choosing a search engine on smartphones. Please note that Google holds around 94% market share in the Australian market, and the choice screen could make way for local players.
Google’s dominance over the App Distribution system
If you are an Android user and are asked to install WhatsApp on your device, what would your first instinct be? If you are like 90% of the Android users, you will choose the Play Store to search and install WhatsApp or any other application on your smartphone. Is the Play Store so good that no competitor stands against it, or is it its monopoly that doesn’t let other app stores showcase themselves as well? Despite a large number of options for alternative app stores, Google Play Store remains the de-facto choice for the majority of Android users.
According to Google’s internal statistics, no app store other than the Play Store has a market share of more than 5%. App developers have only one choice to include their applications in the app distribution chain, and that’s choosing the Play Store. Google has even been known to incentivise Android smartphone manufacturers that ship phones without any third-party store pre-installed.
Even the app developers face severe consequences due to this monopoly as Google doesn’t let developers include other payment methods on their applications other than through the Play Store. Competing payment solutions like PayPal and Braintree charge a minimal fee of 2.9%, in contrast to Google Play’s whopping 30% commission from big developers and 15% from the small ones.
Challenging this monopoly in the app distribution, 36 states in the US filed lawsuits against Google in July 2021. The lawsuit considers the meager market share for any competing app store and the problems that app developers face. Here is a summary of the 144-page document that comprehensively points at each of their wrongdoings in the app distribution business:
- Google imposes strict restrictions on the OEMs to dominate the app distribution space using smartphone manufacturers’ MADA (Mobile Application Distribution Agreements). This agreement restricts smartphone manufacturers from including other app stores in the UI or allowing sideloading of applications.
- Next, Google uses the RSA (Revenue Share Agreements) to reward OEMs that abide by its rules. These RSAs prohibit the inclusion of any other app stores in the UI and restrict sideloading applications.
- The Samsung Galaxy Store is one of the most prominent players amongst Google’s little competition in the app distribution market. The lawsuit claims that Google attempted to buy Samsung to limit its competition. As per the lawsuit, Google would further include the Google Play Billing in the Galaxy Store while keeping the branding intact.
- Bigger app developers can really stir the motion, and Google knows it. The Epic Games vs. App Store case is a classic example. That’s why Google has launched incentive programs to share its profits with large developers.
- Google forces app developers to use Google Play Billing for every application present in the Play Store. Developers end up paying loads of money as commissions as the Play Billing has a whopping 30% and 15% cut for big and small developers, respectively.
Google prohibits OEMs from developing Android variants
For those who don’t know, forking is the process of creating a new variant from the source code of open-source software. Forking is a pretty standard process in the open-source world, and some believe that it plays a significant role in improving the usability of any open-source software.
As mentioned earlier, Android is also open-source software, and Android forks are inevitable, considering its popularity and the vast community surrounding it. While most open-source software encourages forking, Google does quite the opposite with its OEMs.
Google knows that individually created forks cannot replace Android. Not many people go through the hackery of installing a Custom ROM on their devices, but that’s not the case with large OEMs that produce millions of devices every year. If an OEM tries to create a fork and it gains recognition, the chances are that Google can lose its grip on the smartphone market. Google tries its best to restrict any OEM from creating forks of Android and using it commercially.
Any company that needs forthcoming information about Android releases (crucial to optimize according to latest developments and stay relevant in the smartphone market) needs to sign an AFA (anti-fragmentation agreement) with Google. The AFA strictly prohibits all AFA complying parties from forking Android for commercial use.
Moreover, companies can’t even sign the MADA (mobile application distribution agreements) that allow the installation of Google Apps on any commercial device. The Amazon Fire Tablet is a classic example of how these policies don’t let innovation reach the end-user. LG and Amazon were developing the Fire Tablet that would use an Android fork as its prime operating system. Amazon even released the prototypes for the product, but that’s when LG pulled itself from the project as this could risk its AFA and MADA agreements with Google.
Ironically, these policies are also why the world got to witness Samsung’s Tizen OS that became a popular choice for smart-wearable manufacturers around the globe. Samsung originally planned to use an Android fork for its first smartwatch, but after Google’s intervention, it developed Tizen.
Following the trend seen in the sections mentioned above, another government targeted Google for its policies, and this time it was South Korea. The South Korean Fair Trade Commission fined Google $177 million for abusing its lead in the smartphone market. Although the fine may seem like a tremendous amount, it is relatively nothing in front of Google’s net revenue per year. The tech giant made a whopping $76 billion in 2021, which quickly shadows the South Korean authorities’ negligible ask of $177 million.
Getting an OEM license from Google comes with a lot of restrictions for the manufacturers
Android is open-source, and anyone can tinker with its source code. Still, it isn’t that easy to manufacture devices shipping with Android without going through extensive scrutiny from Google’s side. It may surprise you, but MADA (Mobile Application Distribution Agreement) that lets OEMs use Google Apps is not publicly available for the general user. As a matter of fact, it is a highly protected document, and there have been very few leaks in the past.
Google’s licensing process requires OEMs to sign MADA with the company and includes stringent norms for handling Android. The world has only seen two MADA leaks dating back to 2009 and 2011. The smartphone operating system market was much more disintegrated than now, but the decade-old agreements still reveal a lot about the company’s approach towards the OEMs.
The MADA agreements from 2009 and 2011 share a list of dos and don’ts for OEMs to attain Google’s license. Here are a few extracts from the leaked MADA:
- Every Android manufacturer has to include the entire fleet of Google apps; no manufacturer can choose to install only Google Maps or Google contacts.
- Google has to be the default search engine, and the OEMs must include the Google search widget on the home screen.
- Android manufacturers cannot do anything that can fragment Android; the clause covers a broad spectrum of actions, but it essentially bans OEMs from creating Android forks.
- OEMs need to send the monthly sales data to Google and help the big tech company keep track of all the devices running its OS. This clause explicitly gives us an insight that Google saw the importance of user data long before other players in the market.
- The agreement also had some commendable clauses like “any viruses, worms, date bombs, time bombs, or other code that could cause Android to crash cannot exist on approved devices.”
- Another commendable one was that Android manufacturers couldn’t accept EULA without the user’s consent or hijack webpages processed via Google apps.
Many of these clauses have been changed or completely eliminated from the current MADA. Still, these early agreements show how Google has been a dominant party for OEMs even before reaching the heights it is at today.
Google always receives your location data even when you don’t want to!
Google may claim that turning location data collection is that easy on Android devices, but that’s far from the truth. To a regular user, turning off the location/GPS option on their device is equivalent to stopping any location data collection from their devices. While turning off the location indeed disables the inbuilt GPS on your Android, it is not guaranteed that Google won’t keep track of your data.
You might want to read Google’s own guidelines on turning off the location data collection. Their website states that turning off the “Location History” should finally turn off your location tracking, but the sketchy part is that even that may not be true. Google apps might be sending location data in regular intervals to the company’s servers even after disabling the Location History. Adding to the misery, Google receives your location info even when you try to grant location permissions to any other application on your device.
In a 2022 lawsuit, DC Attorney General Karl Racine said that Google’s privacy practices are a bold misrepresentation that undermines consumer privacy. The lawsuit also claims that the current tracking system is impossible for a user to leave, and you cannot protect your location no matter what.
Why don’t OEMs create their own operating systems?
Google holds the right to regulate Android, but governments step in when these regulations go too far; the antitrust lawsuits around the world are the prime examples of this. But why do smartphone manufacturers have to listen to Google in the first place? Why don’t they develop their operating systems, customized entirely for their devices, and get themselves more profit than running Android would ever give them?
There have been attempts to do this, but there are some tremendous obstacles for OEMs going this route. Let’s take the example of Samsung’s Tizen-based smartphone and see why they discontinued their venture.
Tizen was Samsung’s go-to operating system for its smart wearables and has seen some success there but did you know that Samsung even launched a Tizen-based smartphone back in the day? Not just one, but Samsung had five phones under its portfolio of smartphones running the Tizen OS. The phones fell under Samsung’s Z series, which was released in 2013 but was never quite as famous as counterparts running Android because of the low power.
At first glance, the low-budget Samsung Z series seemed like a fantastic idea; why not run a low-end device with inadequate specifications using an OS that excels at extremely low-end hardware like intelligent wearables. But it soon ran into problems; Samsung didn’t optimize the Tizen OS well for the smartphone and had bugs all around the UI, but the bigger problem was Tizen did not have developer support even close to what Android had back in the day. The selling point of Tizen — excellent user experience on a low-end device — was already shattered by its poor performance.
The lack of proper developer support also led Nokia and Microsoft to abandon their Windows Phone operating system in the wake of intense competition from Android.
Eliminating the AFA can change things
As mentioned earlier, creating and popularizing a new OS is not feasible in the current time, and it will only become more difficult in the future. However, if OEMs around the globe join hands and file a lawsuit against the AFA agreement, it could make way for better innovation. The anti-fragmentation deal makes it impossible for OEMs to use the Android source code to create a different OS, but if OEMs manage to get the AFA out of the scene, the smartphone OS space could very well be like Linux and its distros. For those who don’t know, Linux distros are separate operating systems running the same source code, but they offer different functionality according to their use case. Eliminating the AFA is an excellent way of dealing with feeble community support while launching a new OS; all Android apps would run just fine on all the devices running an Android fork.
Android has attained a position that no OS has ever seen, and Google is now trying its best to reap as much as possible through its successful platform. From making it hard to hard to fork Android, to making stringent MADAs, to deceptively collecting location information, Google is doing everything wrong in the book, and governments around the globe are calling them out but is that enough? As of now, Google enjoys a comfortable position in the smartphone market, and it seems complicated to overthrow the tech giant.
Changing the AFA agreement could allow further innovation, but Google won’t make it easy for OEMs to challenge the AFA. Leaving aside the point of view of OEMs, having a monopoly is almost certainly bad for the consumers. Remember how AMD completely turned the CPU market upside down after challenging Intel with some fantastic value products. We might have never known what we were missing unless we had competition in the market.