The fact alone that Google will start charging in Europe for what one could fairly call “parts of” Android is in itself huge news. The change, announced Tuesday as a result of a European Commission lawsuit, is a major shift in Google’s business model and has the potential to loosen the company’s grip on the search and browser market. It is a big deal.
But of all the changes that this new licensing model could bring, simply charging licensees might not be the biggest. The biggest detail could end up being that Google’s phone and tablet partners — like Samsung, LG, and Motorola — can now offer Android-based phones in Europe without any Google apps and services on them. That’s a huge deal, and if manufacturers are daring enough to try it, it could lead to a substantially different market for Android phones some years down the road.
Until now, Google has locked phone and tablet makers into its ecosystem. If they wanted to include Google’s apps and services at all, they effectively had to include those apps and services on every consumer Android device that they made (with the exception of inside China, where Google doesn’t operate). That’s meant, for instance, that Samsung likely couldn’t release a variant of the Galaxy S9 that only includes the Galaxy Apps store and the Samsung browser and doesn’t include Chrome, Google Play, or Google search.
Google said it is incorrect to say the original terms banned Android partners from making any phones or tablets without its apps. The terms only prevented them from selling non-certified versions of Android, the company says; devices that were “compatible” with its apps could still be shipped, even if its apps weren’t included. But it’s unclear whether there are any certified consumer Android devices that do not include Google’s apps. We’ve asked Google for examples.
Companies have essentially been forced into this deal. The vast majority of Android apps are distributed through the Google Play Store — and many of those apps rely on Google Play services to function. Abandoning Google would mean abandoning the Play Store, which can mean shipping a device without Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and so on. Device makers would have to rely on an alternative app store and convince developers to distribute their apps on it, and in many cases rework those apps to function without Google services, too.
This was something the European Commission saw as a big problem. And as part of its $5 billion ruling fining Google for “illegal practices” with Android, it required that Google stop placing this exclusivity arrangement on its partners. Google, the commission wrote, denied users “access to further innovation and smart mobile devices based on alternative versions of the Android operating system” and “closed off an important channel for competitors to introduce apps and services” in the process.
We’ve never seen what Samsung, Motorola, Sony, HTC, LG, and so on would do on an Android phone without Google. Now, we might.
There are valid questions here of whether this is a good idea. All of these companies creating their own app stores and backend services would be a mess for developers and confusing for consumers. The transition would be ugly, and it could weaken the already rough state of premium Android apps.
Or, it could lead all these things to flourish. Samsung could go all in on the Galaxy Apps store, or some independent third party could start up its own service that becomes the de facto Android app distributor. Those stores could offer better terms for developers and do a better job enforcing privacy requirements to protect users, leading to a better ecosystem for everyone.
Perhaps more importantly, we have little idea of what this world looks like, good or bad. We can get a glimpse in China, where apps are split across many different stores — none has more than a quarter of the market, according to the mobile research firm Newzoo — but even that doesn’t paint the full picture. There’s been little incentive for companies to make phone variants, let alone completely different hardware, just for one country. Now they have almost the entirety of Europe to market these non-Google devices to.
Even if this isn’t a revolution, it could lead to some notable projects. Amazon’s Google-free Fire tablets are some of the cheapest options on the market. And there’s a sign that other companies could get behind Amazon’s effort. The Commission wrote that it had “found evidence that Google’s conduct prevented a number of large manufacturers from developing and selling devices based on Amazon’s Android fork called ‘Fire OS.’”
Who knows if they’ll do that: Companies make money off of Google search referrals, and customers want Google’s apps. This exception is also limited only to Europe, since that’s where the ruling is. That limitation could make it hard for companies to get the scale necessary to make starting up an alternative ecosystem a sound decision, since these devices couldn’t be sold pretty much anywhere else.
But they can try. And ultimately, that means that Google has to be careful. Before, Android phone makers had no alternative — now, they do. For Google, which doesn’t truly own Android, that could be the first serious threat to its worldwide phone dominance in years.
Update October 18th, 6:55PM ET: This story has been updated with comment from Google, clarifying the restrictions around making devices without Google apps.