Google was hit with a massive $5 billion fine last week from the EU concerning the company creating a monopoly-like existence surrounding Google Search, Chrome, and the Play Store on Android phones. For those that don’t know, the European Union is a government body much like the FCC, but in Europe. They oversee regulations regarding corporate practices of primarily tech companies to ensure that the market is as open and free as possible to limit anti-competitive behavior. They are the same entity that labeled Microsoft’s use of Windows Explorer much in the same way back in the 2000s. While I can see the Union’s point on Google’s Android model, I’d like to take a minute to discuss just how hard of a spot this puts Google in.
First, let me say that I am not a lawyer, nor have I ever played one on TV. But, I’m going to try to expand on this subject to the best of my knowledge. The basics around this $5 billion fine is that by bundling Google Search, Chrome, and Play Store services as a requirement for phone makers, Google has created an unfair advantage in their favor. These three pieces cannot be avoided if you want to make an Android device. You can’t make a single fork to Android either without agreeing to these apps. That’s why the most successful fork of Android, Amazon’s Fire OS, doesn’t have the Play Store.
Honestly, the EU has a valid argument. Much like my recent post on trying to move to Firefox, Chrome is such a core element of Android that it has created a hard path for alternatives. The same can be said for Search and the Play Store. These apps are Android at this point and are almost unavoidable — which makes sense. It’s Google’s OS and their business model, but it makes using alternatives — like Firefox Browser or DuckDuckGo search — more difficult than I’d like to see. It makes for a pretty solid base for the EU to come down on them.
Unfortunately, there’s a flip side to this story: Google almost had to do this to Android. Most of the EU’s sanctions are a direct result of Google trying to mitigate fragmentation and decrease the threshold for developers to get apps on Android. Google has moved more updates and security features into Play Services to avoid OEMs that simply forget about phones once they are sold to a user. Google has used the Play Store to avoid this and has also avoided long cycles between their core apps like you see with Apple.
The same can be said for Chrome. Using Chrome’s API for Custom Tabs makes it much easier for developers to offer a browser experience directly within their apps, without having to build their own or make sure they support every browser available externally. With Custom Tabs, they simply plug in the API with necessary code and they have access to a mini version of Chrome with the exact same features of the official Chrome app.
The requirement of Play Services for manufacturers also helps the same developers and has contributed to the millions of apps available to close the gap Google once had, versus the iOS App Store. It offers them one central app market to allow their applications to be installed on billions of phones. Without these restrictions, you could make the argument that LG, Moto, OnePlus, or Samsung could all have separate app stores. A developer would then have to make sure they offered support for all them and not just the Play Store. In fact, Samsung actually tried this with early Galaxy phones with little success.
Google has a hard decision ahead. They are being asked to pull back their hold on Android in some ways to make it easier for competing services and apps. Unfortunately, the alternative without Google’s integration may make for a much different user experience. Google has worked hard to make Search and Chrome features of Android — more than standalone applications. Over time, this has made the OS more robust and fluid to compete with other operating systems, allowing Android to become a dominant force in mobile.
Personally, I’m hopeful for a “simple” solution, similar to the previous Microsoft issue with the EU. The Chrome and Search aspects of this are very similar to how certain apps required Internet Explorer in Windows years ago. To circumvent this, Microsoft removed some the APIs that were automatically installed and instead users were presented with an opt-in prompt to choose if they’d want to proceed with Internet Explorer. Android users and the world will be keeping a watchful eye on what solution Google comes up with, and whether the EU considers it a viable fix.