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Google's Dirty Little Android Secrets Leaked

By Richard Adhikari
Feb 14, 2014 2:24 PM PT

The Android operating system, which Google touts as open, isn't.

Google's Dirty Little Android Secrets Leaked

Google imposes strict restrictions on smartphone manufacturers and app developers in its Android mobile application distribution agreement, or MADA, according to excerpts of documents revealed by Ben Edelman, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School.

The information was obtained from two MADAs -- one with HTC and one with Samsung -- that were admitted in open court in Oracle's lawsuit against Google over Java.

"Under pressure, Google may well have to lift these restrictions, letting competitors get a better chance to offer their apps and services," Edelman, who states up front that he's a consultant to some of Google's competitors, told LinuxInsider.

Google did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

The MADAs' Restrictions

In sum, smartphone manufacturers must agree to install all apps Google specifies, with the prominence Google requires, including setting those apps as a default per the company's instructions, if they want to get key mobile apps including Google Search, Maps and YouTube, Edelman said.

It's an all-or-nothing proposition -- installing one Google app means having to install them all. Since smartphone manufacturers need Google Play and YouTube, they must accept Google Search, Maps, Network Location Provider and other apps, regardless of whether they prefer alternatives.

The Google Search and Google Play icons must be placed at least on the panel immediately adjacent to the default home screen, and phone manufacturers must set Google Search as the default search provider for all Web search access points.

All other Google applications must be placed no more than one level below the phone's top level.

Google's Network Location Provider must be preloaded as the default.

Stifling the Opposition

These provisions restrict competition, Edelman charged.

Smartphone manufacturers can install third-party search, map or email apps in addition to the Google apps they must include, Edelman said. However, multiple apps are duplicative, confusing to users, and a drain on device batteries.

Further, manufacturers cannot install third-party apps in exchange for a subsidy that would lower the cost of the device.

Competitors are likely to be less willing to pay for preinstallation of their apps because Google apps must be the default, and its search and app store apps must be placed prominently.

"Google enjoys a position of dominance in the market for mobile phone operating systems," Edelman said. Android and Windows Phone "are the only commercially viable options" for smartphone manufacturers.

Android's position "is tenfold larger," Edelman continued. "Antitrust law applies higher standards for companies in this position."

The Possible MADA Backlash

It's possible that the revelations might spark the interest of antitrust regulators and a negative reaction from the open source community, Edelman said.

The disclosures "will upset developers," said Nick Spencer, a senior director of research at ABI Research.

"They are quite religious about open source stuff, and they're quite annoyed about Apple not having a transparent certification program to get on the App Store, and this is not dissimilar to that," he told LinuxInsider.

"Another possibility is further investigation by the Senate Antitrust Committee; one imagines they might be disappointed to learn that [Google CEO Eric] Schmidt's response was less than forthright," Edelman suggested.

He was referring to a September 2011 committee hearing, where Schmidt reportedly said Google did not demand that smartphone manufacturers make it the default search engine as a condition of using the Android OS.

Storm in a Teacup?

"It is no secret that Google has always intended to monetize Android with back-end services," Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, told LinuxInsider. "I really am not sure why everyone is shocked, shocked at this."

With the MADA restrictions, Google is "trying to keep control," surmised ABI's Spencer. "They've seen all this fragmentation and are very worried about forked versions coming out of China and India -- these forks constituted 25 percent of Android sales."

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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