Google is “tightening the screws” on Android to keep control over the web

Please don’t touch.
Please don’t touch.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Google is in a fascinating position with its Android operating system. It dominates the world’s smartphone market—arguably the most important technology market in history—with only one serious competitor, Apple, behind it. It is also the world’s dominant online search and advertising company, where its leadership is extending to mobile.

Yet the company has no direct control over key parts of Android, such as device design, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution—tasks that are typically handled by its handset or operator partners, ranging from Samsung and Xiaomi to Verizon and Orange. But Google—which initially pitched Android as an “open” platform that anyone could customize—has been working to take more control over Android away from its partners.

The latest: Google’s recent contracts with manufacturers contain new requirements that favor Google’s mobile and web services over potential competitors, according to Amir Efrati at The Information (paywall). These include specific services that must default to Google—search, of course, and others—plus the amount and placement of pre-installed Google apps and services.

This year, the signed agreement said there must be a Google search “widget” on the “default home screen” of the device, along with an icon for the Google Play app store. It said an icon on the device home screen labeled as “Google,” when clicked, must provide access to a “collection” of 13 Google apps (Google Chrome, Google Maps, Google Drive, YouTube, Gmail, Google+, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, Google Play Books, Google Play Newsstand, Google Play Games, Google+ Photos and Google+ Hangouts). The newer agreement also specified the order in which this collection of apps must be listed, from left to right and top to bottom within the Google icon. Several other Google apps, including Google Street View, Google Voice Search and Google Calendar, must be placed “no more than one level below the Home Screen,” the agreement says. (Device owners can manually change the location of icons on their own.)

As Efrati notes, “hardware makers grumble about Google ‘tightening the screws’ on Android, which powers more than a billion active devices, but most are resigned to the fact they don’t have much choice.” To that point, another recent Efrati report (paywall) highlights a deal that HTC pursued with Amazon, which fell through:

The deal drew the attention of Google, which oversees Android. Google warned HTC that it wasn’t allowed to “fork,” or make substantial changes, to Android software or it would risk losing support from Google for its flagship devices, which include Google services such as search and maps, according to two people briefed on the matter.

While Google’s moves will always draw snickers from those who remember Android’s early pie-in-the-sky plans for an “Open Handset Alliance,” the company is smart to assert more control over its mobile ecosystem.

Android still suffers as a secondary platform for users and developers, in part because of its early fragmentation and inconsistency problems. There’s no reason Google should be pleased that its huge lead in market share is squandered with lower relative usage—especially as Google’s core search and advertising business relies on usage, engagement, and market dominance to generate profit.