Today, the EU filed antitrust charges against Google related to the Android mobile operating system. The internet is absolutely alight - both for and against the allegations the European Commission has levied at our favorite search company that also makes our favorite mobile operating system. The key complaints boil down to three core ideas.

  1. Google requires manufacturers to bundle Google Chrome and Google Search, and set Google as the default search provider on their devices if they are GMS (Google Mobile Services) partners. This, allegedly, reduces competition for apps that perform similar or identical functions.
  2. Google does not allow manufacturers to both be GMS partners and produce incompatible "forks" of Android on other, non-GMS devices. You can either be a GMS partner or not be a GMS partner - there's no middle ground.
  3. Google offers financial incentives for manufacturers and mobile operators to not preload other search providers on their devices.

Numbers one and three I really don't agree with in principle - manufacturers sign the GMS agreement knowing exactly what they are agreeing to, and the fact that Google wants center-stage on the device's search function in exchange for providing the invaluable Play Store and Play Services is a business issue, not a legal one. Manufacturers can load as many redundant apps as they want, set different default browsers, home pages, and what have you. Having Google as the default search provider is no doubt a big way Google subsidizes the cost of Android and its various related apps and services. As to number three: again, this strikes me as solely a business issue. If you want to preload Bing on your phone, go for it, but Google won't pay out any shared search revenue or any kind of "signing bonus" (if there is one) if you do. That seems entirely fair - you're not weighing any core ethical principles there, you're just weighing dollars and cents, at least in my view.

Number two, though: that's a stickler. You see, in the early days of Android, there was likely a real concern that if OEM partners had no incentive to use Google services on their Android devices, they just might go off and build their own Android and end Google's grand experiment before it even had a chance to take off. Think about it - if Samsung had been able from day one to push its own Galaxy service-powered smartphone alongside a Google services version of the same phone, would Android look the same today? The Android Market was still quite young, and Samsung may well have worked to heavily incentivize and subsidize the Galaxy services versions of its smartphones to make the Google versions less appealing. That could have eventually put Google in a corner: either provide Google services for Samsung's version of Android, quite possibly signing Google's Android's death certificate in the process, or hope that Samsung's fork eventually died out, and that the "real" Android proved itself in the marketplace.

It is easy to see why Google would want to avoid this scenario entirely in the first place. And so, Google required Google Mobile Services partners to sign what really is a non-compete agreement: you can't make a competing Android-based operating system if you're a GMS partner. This is what the EC finds troubling, that Google not only wants front-and-center placement for search on GMS partner devices, but that it won't let GMS partners build an Android device without GMS at all. (Note: the special exception here is China, where GMS is unavailable, and thus GMS partners are unable to include it in the first place.)

In 2016, I'm not sure Google's stipulations really make sense anymore. "Google's Android" is absurdly dominant - the only competitor it really has is iOS at this point. There isn't much of a valid business concern that, if GMS partners were allowed to simultaneously sell forked Android products, that the entire ecosystem would come crashing down. Android is big, powerful, and allegedly open. It's not the fragile little experiment it was six or seven years ago. Google's Android isn't going anywhere.

Would forked Android phones be any good? Well, realistically, probably not. But is there a reason manufacturers with successful GMS lines of products should not be allowed to experiment with the Android platform in ways Google doesn't endorse? After all, building a "forked" Android by necessity means a device without Google's services, so why does Google particularly care if their name and products aren't on the line?

Google's response to this allegation is also tellingly weak:

Manufacturers who want to participate in the Android ecosystem commit to test and certify that their devices will support Android apps. Without this system, apps wouldn’t work from one Android device to the next.  Imagine how frustrating it would be if an app you downloaded on one Android phone didn’t also work on your replacement Android phone from the same manufacturer.

It really doesn't even address the primary concern of the EC. Google simply says that GMS and the subsequent CDD (Compatibility Definition Document) and CTS (Compatibility Test Suite) ensure that apps work right on end GMS devices. And sure, that's true enough. But all of those compatible apps are supposed to be coming from the Play Store, aren't they? A non-GMS device wouldn't have that content portal, so app developers on the Play Store would theoretically have no obligation to concern themselves with forked devices (practically, I realize, it could be different).

Non-GMS devices would use other app stores, stores that would likely have content designed to work with that forked version of Android. App developers already do this for Fire OS, and if consumer demand for another non-GMS device existed, developers would likely work to ensure compatibility with that fork, as well. Google is trying to have its cake and eat it: it points to Fire OS - an Android fork - as an example of Android's open source nature and the fact that Google isn't stifling competition.

Our partner agreements are entirely voluntary -- anyone can use Android without Google. Try it—you can download the entire operating system for free, modify it how you want, and build a phone. And major companies like Amazon do just that. 

But then in the next paragraph attempts to say that forking is objectively terrible for user experience. Which is it, Google? Is forking a shining example of what can be done with an open source platform, or is it UX poison? If Fire OS can exist and Android itself has not devolved into a fragmented shambles of a platform, how legitimate is this looming threat of incompatibility you point to? It seems largely to be a boogeyman. The GMS non-compete clause may well have been drawn up out of legitimate fear that Android could be irreparably damaged by "forking" in its early days. Today, it seems largely to be a relic that only serves anymore to advance Google's own interests and keep manufacturers in step, not "protect" Android or its users.

And as the Nexus program grows each passing year, Google is more and more starting to compete against its own partners, and Google has tools at its disposal (like the ability to modify core Android functionality, and dictate compatibility) that its partners do not. This makes the forking non-compete seem even less palatable. If Google was totally hands-off and didn't build any phones, it would make more sense. But Google getting into the fray and selling phones makes it harder to defend.

I'm as much making ridiculous, scoffing noises as most of you at the EC's other allegations - this reeks of the Windows Media Player bundling case that famously amounted to a whole lot of nothing (and a fine that, 12 years later, the EC has yet to collect), because it turned out most consumers don't actually give a shit about bundled software (surprise). I wouldn't personally be opposed to a browser picker during Android's setup - that doesn't seem so awful for Google, either. But search? This gets back to business, and if Google isn't going to charge a hefty licensing fee for Android, they've got to make that money somewhere, and search has been that somewhere. If you're going to harp on Google for incentivizing including Google as the one and only search provider on Android simply because Google is the world's dominant search provider, you're going to need to show me compelling anti-consumer ramifications, because I just don't see them.

But the Android forking non-compete feels a bit like an anachronism anymore, and it's clearly not helping Google's case with the EC. If Android is as open as Google says it is, perhaps it's time to stop shackling GMS partners solely to Google's interpretation of it - it may be well-intentioned, but it's not hard to see how it could also look anticompetitive. At this point, Android is strong enough to stand on its own, I don't see the harm in letting a few manufacturers, if any are even interested, do a bit more experimenting with the platform outside the walls of the GMS / CDD kingdom. It could even be interesting. It could also just end up leading to nothing at all. But as it stands now, we really can't know, because all of Google's existing partners have their hands tied by this clause. Maybe it's time to let it go.