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Let’s remember that nobody asked Google to make Android free

Updated Nov 22nd, 2019 4:35AM EST

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The European Union just hit Google with a record-breaking $5 billion fine for abusing its position in the mobile business. The EU didn’t like the fact that Google “forces” Android device makers to install Google Search and the Chrome browser alongside Google Play on their devices, or the fact that Google pays carriers and partners for search exclusivity. The EU also said that Google stifles competition, discouraging anyone from using Android forks.

Google has already issued a response, and it’s precisely the kind of answer we expect from the company. Android is open source and therefore it should encourage diversity and innovation, as well as offering choices to vendors, partners, and consumers.

What most people find disturbing about Google’s response is that the company is threatening to charge for Android after today’s ruling. But hey, Google, nobody asked you to offer Android for free in the first place.

Any Google and Android customer does or should know that they’re paying for all the services Google offers with their personal data. That’s how Google can make more money off of each customer. There’s nothing really free out there, Android included. Device makers don’t pay a license for it, sure, but Google is still making any money off of Android thanks to all the Google apps that come pre-installed on devices.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post titled Android has created more choice, not less, that customers get to choose what apps to install and whether to use its services or not. That’s true, but not all buyers are as tech savvy as he’s implying. And most people will just use the default apps found on the device. Just ask iPhone users about what navigation app they use.

Let’s look at some other things Pichai said (emphasis ours).

In 2007, we chose to offer Android to phone makers and mobile network operators for free. Of course, there are costs involved in building Android, and Google has invested billions of dollars over the last decade to make Android what it is today.

Yes, like Google could have afforded to charge a license for Android back when the company was a nobody in the mobile market. Google was smart about three things back then. One, that mobile would become more important than PCs, so its search empire needed to thrive elsewhere. Two, that the iPhone needed to be copied. And three, that Android had to be free so that device makers would want to get behind Android as fast as possible, ditching rival platforms like Symbian and Windows Mobile in the process.

This investment makes sense for us because we can offer phone makers the option of pre-loading a suite of popular Google apps (such as Search, Chrome, Play, Maps and Gmail), some of which generate revenue for us, and all of which help ensure the phone ‘just works’, right out of the box. Phone makers don’t have to include our services; and they’re also free to pre-install competing apps alongside ours. This means that we earn revenue only if our apps are installed, and if people choose to use our apps instead of the rival apps.

So which is it, they don’t have to include your services? But they can install apps alongside yours? The phones would “just work” without many of those Google apps preinstalled because users would either have alternatives built by a phone maker, or info on how to get Google’s apps.

The free distribution of the Android platform, and of Google’s suite of applications, is not only efficient for phone makers and operators—it’s of huge benefit for developers and consumers. If phone makers and mobile network operators couldn’t include our apps on their wide range of devices, it would upset the balance of the Android ecosystem. So far, the Android business model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone makers for our technology, or depend on a tightly controlled distribution model.

What do you mean balance? Is this like a Force thing? Also, would everyone be worse off if Google Play wasn’t bundled with Chrome and Google Search apps? And is that a subtle threat that I’m seeing?

Image source: Kārlis Dambrāns

You haven’t charged Android device makers exactly because the end-game was to win as much market share as possible. One by one, iPhone and Android killed Palm, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry. But it was Android that was the huge winner because of this “free” business model. A free license in return for prominent app placement on all devices.

It would be interesting to see how Android would have fared if it wasn’t free for device manufacturers. Sure, Google may have still come out a winner, but would Android devices be saddled with all those Google apps? Could you make your apps mandatory if a vendor paid a license? No, and the odds are pretty good that it would have suffered the same fate as Windows Phone, the now-defunct mobile OS that Microsoft tried to get vendors to pay for.

We’ve always agreed that with size comes responsibility. A healthy, thriving Android ecosystem is in everyone’s interest, and we’ve shown we’re willing to make changes. But we are concerned that today’s decision will upset the careful balance that we have struck with Android and that it sends a troubling signal in favor of proprietary systems over open platforms.

Again with the balance.

Dear Google, you can charge for your services any way you please. You’ve got billions of customers and many of them will be ready to pay a bit more for Android phones if vendor licensing fees have to be recouped. Whether they’d want it or not, that price would obviously be factored into the cost of future handsets and tablets.

But claiming that the EU ruling “sends a troubling signal in favor of proprietary systems over open platforms” is a bit too much. Also, do you mean to say that the EU is favoring iOS over Android? Because there definitely aren’t other mobile operating systems that actually matter aside from Android and iOS. And let’s not pretend that the Android Google uses for its Pixel phones isn’t proprietary, too. As open as Android may be, Pixel phones have received exclusive features in the past, long before Google brought them to other devices.

That said, by all means, Google, go ahead and appeal the decision! But remember that nobody asked you to make Android free, not even the EU, as powerful as it may be. So let’s not pretend the final ruling will force you to charge vendors and customers for Android. But if you do end up charging for Android, will we also get the option to opt out of any kind of user data tracking that goes on behind the scenes in Android?

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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