What you need to know about open Android and Google’s Android apps

Browse the web today and if people aren’t talking about Comcast’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable, they’re talking about how Android isn’t as open as Google would have you think.
Except this really isn’t news. Nor is it that different from other software arrangements in the market. And it’s not even as complicated as you might think.
Credit: Louis Gray

It’s really not that complicated

Let’s keep it simple for a second and then look at the situation in greater detail. Russell Holly from Geek.com nailed it on Twitter this morning:

He’s right. And guess what: This has been the case since Android(s goog) debuted in 2008. I don’t expect the situation to change any time soon although the Wall Street Journal today reported that the EU is looking into this:

“Google Inc. says its Android mobile operating system is “open.” But newly discovered documents reveal the strings attached.
The documents show that Google has imposed strict restrictions on device makers that want access to its search engine, YouTube or the more than one million apps in its Play Store. In return, the device makers must feature other Google apps and set Google search as the default for users, according to the agreements.
European antitrust authorities are examining those conditions, among others, as they consider whether Google has abused Android’s position as the leading smartphone operating system. In Europe, companies with dominant market share are required to promote competition, said Ioannis Lianos, a professor at University College London who studies competition law.”

Android vs Google’s services and apps

There’s an important distinction that many seem to be overlooking or just now realizing: Android itself is open. Anyone can freely use the open source code to create an Android build and run it on any piece of hardware they see fit. If I wanted to shoehorn Android on an old phone or tablet — assuming I knew how to do so — I could. So could you. This is precisely what handset makers in China have been doing: Taking the freely available AOSP, or Android Open Source Project, code and selling phones that run on it.
Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
Amazon(s amzn) has been doing this for a few years now too. That Amazon Kindle Fire tablet you, a family member or a friend has runs the freely available version of Android. Amazon has built its own interface on top of Android and its own apps as well. You can browse the web with the Silk browser or check your Gmail with the Kindle email app.
But no Android phones, tablets or my own theoretical Android product mentioned above, could run Google’s own suite of apps unless they were licensed. That means paying Google a fee for Gmail, Google Maps, Google Calendar and access to the Google Play Store, for example. It also means that Google has a say over what devices can have such access through licensing, meaning: It can set minimum device requirements for licensing. Amazon is a perfect example of a company choosing not to license Google’s apps so it has total freedom for its hardware design.

This makes perfect sense and it’s not a new business model

Let’s step back a second and look at software licensing. Much as Google licenses its mobile apps, Microsoft licenses Windows and Windows Phone. Companies pay Microsoft to put this software on their devices. And Microsoft has minimum requirements for each, just as Google does. You can’t run Windows Phone 8 on a device with a single core processor for example; Microsoft requires a dual-core chip. The handset must have a GPS radio and a minimum of 512 MB of memory as well.
Why does Microsoft do this? For the same general reason that Google does: To create a minimum common hardware denominator that guarantees a certain user experience. If Microsoft were to let budget handset makers put Windows Phone on junk hardware, it would make Windows Phone itself look like junk.
If you look back before 2010, you can see this in the Android world. Samsung created the Galaxy Tab back then: A slate that ran Android and Google’s own apps. Before that however, a few device makers — Archos comes to mind — built tablets using Android but wasn’t able to license Google’s apps. Why? Because the tablets didn’t meet minimum requirements; they were missing a key radio or camera component at the time that would have been detrimental to the experience. These tablets required workarounds for app stores and such as a result.

Is there a bit of anti-competition? Evidence suggests no.

So it looks like the EU will dig deeper into documentation that recently surfaced showing details of Google’s licensing arrangement for its Android apps. I’m not a legislator so I’m not going to recommend what the EU does or doesn’t do in this case. But I have written about the mobile market for a decade and I have seen some competition from those who license Google’s apps on Android.
Samsung is a prime example. It has a licensing agreement with Google so its Galaxy phones, for example, come pre-installed with Google’s apps and services. But Samsung has also created its own versions of those apps. Pick up a Galaxy S4 and you’ll see duplicate apps for your email and calendar. Heck, you’ll even see Samsung Apps, a mobile app store that competes directly against Google’s Play Store.
Galaxy Note 10.1 screenshot
The problem that I’ve found when using these third-party apps meant to replace Google’s own software is that they simply don’t measure up. And I’m not trying to point a finger at Samsung here; I’ve noticed the same from HTC and others, although HTC’s email app is better than most due to strong Microsoft ActiveSync Exchange support. The point is, these handset makers have tried to and continue to compete with Google’s software and services.

So why is this a big deal now?

As I noted, Android has indeed been open since 2008. And Google has had a licensing program for its Android apps since that time. The program may have changed over time as the market matured, but that’s to be expected. The big deal now is that reported details of Google Android app licensing is coming to light. And for some reason, the misinformed have jumped on this to cry out “Android isn’t open!”
Granted, there have been some situations where Android’s openness is questioned, even when it has nothing to do with Google’s apps. In 2010, mobile location company Skyhook sued Google over four patents and claimed that Google wasn’t competing fairly by trying to push its own Wi-Fi location services on hardware partners. Internal documents later emerged showing that a Wi-Fi location database was integral to Google’s own Android strategy.
While incidents such as these do little to answer the question of Google’s own openness, the fact remains that Android itself is open to those who wish to build their own smartphones, tablets, watches or other devices. If, as my peer Russell Holly stated so well, you want to take advantage of Google’s software and service world, you’ll have to abide by Google’s terms.
Why is that so hard to understand?