Android is not Windows

The European Commission declared today that it had sent a Statement of Objections to Google and its parent company Alphabet regarding the Android OS, accusing the Mountain View firm of abusing its dominant position by imposing restrictions on OEMs and mobile operators. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as Margrethe Vestager - European Commissioner for Competition - voiced just last Monday the concerns of the Commission regarding Google’s alleged anticompetitive behavior via its mobile OS, raising the threat of a probe:

« Our concern is that, by requiring phone makers and operators to pre-load a set of Google apps, rather than letting them decide for themselves which apps to load, Google might have cut off one of the main ways that new apps can reach customers »

The European Commission fears that the contracts between Google and OEMs or mobile operators for the use of Google proprietary apps may hinder the development of alternative applications, search services and android-based operating systems.

This feels very much like a mirror image of the 2004 Microsoft case in which the Redmond giant was accused of abusing its dominant position in Windows OS to push its own navigator and media players. Microsoft was ultimately forced to open its source code to competitors and offer alternatives to its own apps for preinstalled PCs.

Android OS is however quite a bit different from Windows. First of all, there are two very different ways to implement an Android based OS in a device:

  • The Android Open Source project (AOSP), which is led by Google and publishes the source code of the mobile OS. Google maintains and develops Android versions, which OEMs and operators can use as such. But they can also use the source code to develop their own alternative versions of the OS, like CyanogenMod, Amazon’s Fire OS or Xiaomi’s MIUI. The source code can be freely used by anyone, without asking permission to Google. The Amazon Fire OS, which powers some of the Kindle devices, is a good example of an OS forked from Android. It’s fully functional and offers equivalent alternatives to Google Apps.
  • The Google version of Android loaded with Google’s app store and various apps, such as Gmail, Google Maps and Youtube. This version of Android is still based on Open Source code, but includes proprietary elements related to Google services. In Asia, only 30 to 40% of Android devices ship under this scheme but in Europe most devices are shipped with the more “vanilla” version of Android. Furthermore, OEMs and service providers have the possibility of using a naked version of Android or of including Google’s services in the device. In the latter case, the device has to be certified by Google first to ensure maximum compatibility with existing apps and Android features. The OEMs and operators can also choose (in both cases) to include their own proprietary functions, such as Samsung’s TouchWiz interface and Galaxy app store or the HTC Sense environment.

The OEMs and operators are not the only ones who can get their hands on Android code to build their own variants: users can do it too. The Open Source CyanogenMod is an alternative OS based on Android and backed by a community of developers. It claims to improve performance and provides additional features not found in original Android releases. Although CyanogenMod doesn’t include Google’s apps and app store natively, the users can install them by themselves.

So not only is it possible to use Android without any references to Google or without using Google’s own apps, but it is actually being implemented as such and by major market players around the world. It just happens not to be something that seems to appeal to European OEMs and Service Providers so much.

What does happen in Europe however is for OEMs and mobile operators to load Google’s own set of apps (it’s all or nothing in the license agreement) but include alternative app stores and display those more prominently than Google’s own. That is for example the case of Samsung’s Galaxy App Store or of Telecom Italia’s Application Store TIM. In some cases services providers have also included competing apps on the devices. The customers of the Belgian’s operator Mobistar have their smartphones shipped with the iCoyote application as a substitute to Google Maps.

And of course the end users themselves can customize their own mobile phone’s Android to a very large extent. First of all they can freely access any app store even if Google’s own store is loaded on the device. The F-Droid (Free and Open Source apps), Amazon and SlideMe app stores are all credible alternatives and can be installed by the users by simply downloading the store apps online.
Users can also deactivate apps from the Google package, even when they are shipped with the device: they don’t have to keep Google Maps, Google Music or Google Play Movies live for their devices to work properly. It’s hard to find figures on the proportion of users who have no Google apps whatsoever on their Android devices, but according to ComScore, YouTube, Google Search and Google Maps are only present on 25-30% of users’ home screens, which is where 3 out of 4 users access their most used apps.

Looking at the Commission’s rhetoric in this case, it feels like they assume users are not capable of making their own choices. This may have been true back in 2004 when PC literacy was low and changing a default media player or navigator was beyond the grasp of most users. 12 years on, the world has changed and most mobile device users know that they have choices and fully exercise the right to choose.

Microsoft was forced to open its code to competitors 12 years ago. Android’s code is already open and has been from day one. Microsoft was forced to offer alternatives to its own apps on preinstalled PCs, but the very ecosystem Android operates under integrates these alternatives, and not just at the user level but also at the OEM level and at the service provider level.

It feels like the Commission is trying to replay a match it won last decade, but they have picked a player that has learned from Microsoft’s closed ecosystem. Android is a very different beast, one that is open at its core and on multiple levels. Anti-Google lobbying is powerful in Brussels, and it seems that it has reached the commission’s ears. But there’s not much to go on here: Android was designed to comply with what got Windows stung 12 years ago.