Last week Android was dragged into the anti-competition battle between Europe and Google. But is it simply a victim of its own success?
Android’s vice president of engineering this week revealed the European Commission had “asked questions” about the firms it has partnered with, but denied any anti-competitive allegations in a post on Google’s blog.
Europe is already at war with Google over competition laws, which the European body believes the search giant is breaking due to its page ranking formulas.
And now open-source Android has been called into question by the commission over its relationship with Google.
The search giant operates Android’s app platform, Google Play, and has influence over the frameworks developers and publishers must comply with to use the operating system, called “anti-fragmentation agreements”.
Europe is querying whether its close alignment with Google is fair both to phone manufacturers and developers who are hoping to make gains in a saturated market, where a few large players have the monopoly.
But Android’s vice president of engineering, Hiroshi Lockheimer, dismissed such queries. He said: “We are thankful for Android’s success and we understand that with success comes scrutiny.”
The system has several “anti-fragmentation agreements”, which ease app interoperability issues across devices (for example how an app works on Samsung may differ from Nokia). While it is branded as an entirely open-source platform for developers and manufacturers to use, these frameworks are influenced by big players like Google, and those working with the platform must comply.
Also, through pre-installed apps and the Google Play store, Google dictates which apps users will see first - another point of contention for Europe’s strict anti-competition rules.
But Lockheimer denies any lock-in with the search giant. He said the motivation behind its app distribution strategy was to help smartphone manufacturers using Android to compete with Apple and Microsoft which come preloaded with similar apps.
He adds that distribution agreements “are not exclusive and Android manufactures install their own apps and apps from other companies as well”.
Apple, the most profitable mobile phone company internationally, pre-installs more apps on its phones than Android does and does not offer much leeway for developers. In comparison, Google’s agreement with Android allows you to install its suite of apps (like Gmail and Maps), install a developer's own apps and allow them to compete while participating within the Google Play store.
Lockheimer says: “It's not just Google that has benefited from Android's success. The Android model has let manufacturers compete on their unique innovations. Developers can reach huge audiences and build strong businesses. And consumers now have unprecedented choice at ever lower prices. We look forward to discussing these issues in more detail with the European Commission over the months ahead.”
Amazon phones, for example, do not ship with pre-installed Google apps. However, their popularity has dwindled, although it is hard to pinpoint whether this is because commonly used apps like Google Maps are not immediately available through handsets – its own services and apps would be contenders for the search giant’s own e-reading apps Google books.
Responding to Lockheimer’s comments on Google’s blog, developers and Android users were quick to criticise the relationship.
Nicolas Charbonnier, a video blogger for consumer tech site ARMdevices.net wrote: “I believe that the Google Android agreement forces the whole list of specific Google Apps to be pre-installed and highlighted on the desktop of any Android device if they want to ship any of Google’s apps.
“Which may be why Amazon isn’t shipping Google Maps or Gmail, which just make Amazon’s Android devices inferior. It’s totally anti-competitive. Same totally unfair requirements for any shipments of Android TV, Chrome OS…”