If you or I got slapped with a $5.1 billion dollar fine, it would likely be a bit of a problem. That’s the number handed down to Google from the European Commission (EC) for what it calls illegal practices used to strengthen its internet search dominance through the Android mobile operating system. For Google, it’ll smart a bit having to hand it over, but with its cash reserves, it could pay up and forget all about it.
However, while the fine — the largest the European Commission has ever given — captures headlines, it’s the changes to Google’s practices the Commission is forcing that will have a far longer lasting impact, and may seriously change Android and the way it’s used around the globe. While Google will be anxious, rivals are pleased with the decision because it presents them with an opportunity that hasn’t been forthcoming. Which is actually the Commission’s point.
What does it all mean for you? Your next Android phone may not be the quite the same as it was before, and that’s a good thing.
The end of an era
What happened? The EC found three areas where Google broke antitrust rules in Europe. The first is forcing companies that want to use Android and pre-install the Google Play Store to include its Chrome browser and Google Search apps, and not install alternatives. The second is illegally paying device makers to exclusively pre-install Google Search. Finally, preventing companies from using other, competing forked versions of Android if they are also selling Google’s Android on other devices. It’s Google’s way, and that’s it.
All this “cemented the dominance of its search engine,” said EC Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, and “denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits.” Google makes its money through ads, and a lot of crucial data comes from search. Google has 90 days to stop these practices deemed illegal by the EC, or face a daily fine of five percent of Alphabet’s annual turnover. Alphabet is Google’s parent company.
If you’re Google, then it’s a serious blow. CEO Sundar Pichai has written a lengthy defense of Android and its business model, saying it actually promotes choice, and that the decision will upset the “balance of the Android ecosystem.” Pichai warns that it’s this business model that has stopped Google charging fees to use Android, or tightening controls over the distribution model.
While Android is technically open source and anyone can use it, it’s only the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) that’s truly free. To install Android with Google Play and other Google apps, there are rules to be followed, and acceptance by Google.
The EC’s plan is to put an end to this, but it’s leaving it in Google’s hands to work out how. “It’s Google’s sole responsibility to ensure compliance,” it writes, and adds the decision is not made to, “prevent Google from putting in place a reasonable, fair, and objective system,” that stops Android from functioning, or Google services from operating. Like Braveheart, the EC has painted itself blue and is shouting, “freedom!” At Google, the doors to Android have got to open a little wider.
Poor Google, right? Told what to do by the evil commissioner. Turn to the reaction from competitors, and you’ll begin to understand why it’s Google and Google alone that will be most upset by the decision.
“We welcome the EU cracking down on Google’s anti-competitive search behavior. “
Public policy head for Yelp, Kostas Rossoglou, tweeted, “Competitors, phone manufacturers, consumer groups, SMEs all applaud EU Android decision.” Oracle Vice President Ken Glueck’s quoted as saying it will, “undoubtedly unleash more choice for mobile customers … more opportunities … and more robust competition.”
However, both Oracle and Yelp are known Google detractors, so such a response is to be expected.
Similarly, the privacy-focused search engine company, DuckDuckGo, tweeted:
“We welcome the EU cracking down on Google’s anti-competitive search behavior. We have felt its effects first hand for many years and has led directly to us having less market share on Android vs iOS and in general mobile vs desktop.”
And Mozilla’s Chief Operating Officer, Denelle Dixon, emailed Digital Trends a statement.
“We are hopeful the result will help level the playing field for mobile browsers like Firefox, and to foster openness that creates and sustains competition and innovation.”
We won’t suddenly lose the ability to use Google apps, access the Play Store, or enjoy Android.
It’s these firms and many more that sense a considerable opportunity here. European consumer organisation BEUC tweeted that it agrees with the assessment that Google abuses its power, and this, “restriction of competition hurts European consumers.”
Not everyone is on the side of choice, with many of the hundreds responding to Vestager on Twitter questioning the decision. This professor and former European Union think tank member argues, like Pichai, that Android promotes competition, lowers prices, and avoids the Apple walled-garden scenario. Are they wrong? Yes. When has competition been a bad thing?
What’s the worst that could happen?
We don’t know what Google is planning yet. However, we won’t suddenly lose the ability to use Google apps, access the Play Store, or enjoy Android. When Microsoft was put in a similar situation with Internet Explorer on Windows, it offered a “browser ballot,” at startup, allowing you to choose which browser you wanted to install and use. Google could potentially do the same with Chrome and its Search app. Perhaps the familiar Search bar will be a widget only, rather than being automatically placed on the home screen, and be flanked by other search widgets.
Perhaps Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG, or any other companies may decide to release a phone with Amazon’s Fire OS, or even produce and release a device with their own Android alternative. Like Tizen once was for Samsung. All of the above will still also carry on using Android — because why wouldn’t they — but we could see the scourge of bloatware increase with such freedom. But that’s what the uninstall option is for, and they’re going to get hammered for doing it in reviews too.
Change is coming
Ultimately, at this time, we will probably just get more choice of software and potentially hardware too. The great thing is, if the alternatives are rubbish, we don’t have to use or buy them. Google will still be there, just in a slightly more open way. In all this is the chance we’ll try something new, and perhaps discover a decent alternative, for example. How can that be bad? It’s not, unless you’re Google being forced to change something that has made it a lot of money, and given it a massive amount of power and influence.
Some alterations are coming to Android devices in the EU over the next 90 days.
Nightmare scenario? That Google starts charging device makers for Android, they refuse to pay, and we end up with operating systems designed by manufacturers, which have always been universally awful. This is incredibly unlikely, because everyone will simply buy an iPhone instead. Remember, Google will almost certainly be looking over its shoulder at Apple whilst deciding a course of action here.
Pichai said Google will appeal the EC decision, which may change everything again, depending on the outcome. However, what we can be certain of is some alterations are coming to Android, at least those devices sold in the European Union, over the next 90 days. What we shouldn’t be is mad about it. Google’s getting the bad end of the deal, not us.