Google could finally face serious competition for Android

The fact alone that Google
will start charging
in Europe for what one could fairly
call “parts of” Android is in itself huge news. The change,
announced yesterday as a result of
a European Commission lawsuit
, is a major shift in Google’s
business model and has the potential to loosen the company’s
grip on the search and browser market. It is a big deal.

But of all the changes that this new licensing model could
bring, simply charging licensees might not be the biggest. The
biggest detail could end up being that Google’s phone and
tablet partners — like Samsung, LG, and Motorola — can now
offer Android-based phones in Europe without any Google apps
and services on them. That’s a huge deal, and if manufacturers
are daring enough to try it, it could lead to a substantially
different market for Android phones some years down the road.

Until now, Google has locked phone and tablet makers into its
ecosystem. If they wanted to include Google’s apps and services
at all, they had to include those apps and services on every
Android phone or tablet that they made (with the exception of
inside China, where Google doesn’t operate). That’s meant, for
instance, that Samsung couldn’t release a variant of the Galaxy
S9 that only includes the Galaxy Apps store and the Samsung
browser and doesn’t include Chrome, Google Play, or
Google search.

Companies have essentially been forced into this deal. The vast
majority of Android apps are distributed through the Google
Play Store — and many of those apps rely on Google Play
services to function. Abandoning Google would mean abandoning
the Play Store, which can mean shipping a device without
Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and so on. Device makers would
have to rely on an alternative app store and convince
developers to distribute their apps on it, and in many cases
rework those apps to function without Google services, too.

This was something the European Commission saw as a big
problem. And as part of its $5 billion ruling fining Google for
“illegal practices” with Android, it required that Google stop
placing this exclusivity arrangement on its partners. Google,
the commission wrote, denied users “access to further
innovation and smart mobile devices based on alternative
versions of the Android operating system” and “closed off an
important channel for competitors to introduce apps and
services” in the process.

We’ve never seen what Samsung, Motorola, Sony, HTC, LG, and so
on would do on an Android phone without Google. Now, we might.

There are valid questions here of whether this is a good idea.
All of these companies creating their own app stores and
backend services would be a mess for developers and confusing
for consumers. The transition would be ugly, and it could
weaken the already rough state of premium Android apps.

Or, it could lead all these things to flourish. Samsung could
go all in on the Galaxy Apps store, or some independent third
party could start up its own service that becomes the de facto
Android app distributor. Those stores could offer better terms
for developers and do a better job enforcing privacy
requirements to protect users, leading the app ecosystem to
flourish.

Perhaps more importantly, we have little idea of what this
world looks like, good or bad.
We can get a glimpse in China
, where apps are split across
many different stores — none has
more than a quarter
of the market, according to the mobile
research firm Newzoo — but even that doesn’t paint the full
picture. There’s been little incentive for companies to make
phone variants, let alone completely different hardware, just
for one country. Now they have almost the entirety of Europe to
market these non-Google devices to.

Even if this isn’t a revolution, it could lead to some notable
projects. Amazon’s Google-free Fire tablets are some of the
cheapest options on the market. And there’s a sign that other
companies could get behind Amazon’s effort. The Commission
wrote that it had “found evidence that Google’s conduct
prevented a number of large manufacturers from developing and
selling devices based on Amazon’s Android fork called ‘Fire
OS.’”

Who knows if they’ll do that: Companies make money off of
Google search referrals, and customers want Google’s apps. This
exception is also limited only to Europe, since that’s where
the ruling is. That limitation could make it hard for companies
to get the scale necessary to make starting up an alternative
ecosystem a sound decision, since these devices couldn’t be
sold pretty much anywhere else.

But they can try. And ultimately, that means that Google has to
be careful. Before, Android phone makers had no alternative —
now, they do. For Google, which doesn’t truly own Android, that
could be the first serious threat to its
worldwide phone dominance
in years.

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