Europe v Google: how Android became a battleground

The European Commission has accused Google of abusing its dominance of the smartphone market. Why has it done this? And what exactly is Android?

The European Commission has accused Google of abusing its dominance of the smartphone market through Android, blocking competition and innovation. But what is Android, what does Google offer and what are others doing with Android?

Android is the mobile operating system that runs on over 80% of the world’s smartphones, according to data from Gartner, but there is more than one version of Android.

Google offers two versions. The first is the core operating system called the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). It is open-source, free for anyone to use, change, modify or adapt for practically any purpose.

From smartphones and tablets to embedded devices such as sensors, fridges, cars and industrial machines, AOSP has been moulded into many, many forms.

The version of AOSP that you might have come across in the UK or US is running on Amazon’s Fire tablets. Amazon took AOSP and built what it calls Fire OS from it, including Amazon’s services and apps, customised to run specifically on the company’s Fire products, including the Fire TV, Fire tablets and the ill-fated Fire Phone.

Google’s Android experience

To go along with AOSP, Google also offers its suite of apps and services, which includes the Google Play Store that is full of third-party applications.

Most of the Android smartphones or tablets sold in the UK, US or EU come with Google’s suite of apps, and is the version of Android most will be familiar with.

While AOSP can be used freely for any purpose, Google’s app suite cannot. It comes with a series of conditions that must be met for Google to license an app’s use to device manufacturers.

There are 11 apps in total within Google’s suite of apps, which do not include the many others that the company offers. These include:

  • Gmail
  • Google Chrome
  • Google Drive
  • Google Hangouts
  • Google Maps
  • Google Play Movies
  • Google Play Music
  • Google Photos
  • Google Play Store
  • Google Search
  • YouTube

To be allowed to pre-install the Google Play Store on a device, a manufacturer must also pre-install all 11 of the Google apps. Google does not restrict manufacturers from pre-installing any other apps, Samsung pre-installs some of Microsoft’s Android apps on its Galaxy smartphones for instance, but the 11 Google apps must be installed.

When more than one application is installed that can handle a particular task, such as tapping on a link in an email, Android will ask the user which of these apps they want to use to perform the task. In the case of tapping on a link on one of Samsung’s Galaxy phones that have the Korean company’s browser installed, it will ask whether the user wants to open the link in Google Chrome or Samsung’s browser, and whether they want to use the same app for all future links.

google android starting home screen
A Motorola Moto G Android home screen, displaying the Google Search bar, Google Play Store icon and Google apps suite folder. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Google also sets a few requirements for when the smartphone or tablet is booted up for the first time. The Google Search box must be placed on the first home screen, as must the icon for Google Play and a folder with Google’s other apps.

Users are free to delete the apps and search widget from the homescreen, but they must be there to start with.

The crux of the EC’s complaint against Google is that the company will not allow manufacturers to include the Google Play Store, which has the largest collection of third-party Android apps available, without including both Google’s Search app, the company’s Chrome browser and having Google Search set as default.

The EC says that this practice “may lead to a further consolidation of the dominant position of Google Search in general internet search services” and that it is “concerned that these practices affect the ability of competing mobile browsers to compete with Google Chrome”.

The EC also said it was concerned that Google’s practices “hinder the development of operating systems based on the Android open source code and the opportunities they would offer for the development of new apps and services”.

Google is also accused of providing financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile phone operators on condition of exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices.


Samuel Gibbs

The GuardianTramp

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