Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority
“We need to integrate Android and Chrome on all important screens for users. It was Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaking at Google I / O 2014. Seven years later, Pichai’s vision could finally come to fruition, but maybe not the way he envisioned.
It took the combined forces of Amazon and Microsoft to bring the core of the Android experience – the most important apps – to millions more users with the introduction of native. Support for Android apps on Windows 11. The solution is a potential change in how users will interact with their favorite apps, smartphones and PCs, but it’s puzzling that the initiative was not led by Google but by one of its biggest rivals.
Google has always insisted on the merits of open source software at the heart of Android and the benefits of open platforms to spur innovation and bring technology to the masses. To quote Pichai once again, “When you run a large-scale platform you have to make sure it’s really open. This way, not only are you doing well, but others are as well.
It is certainly true. Google’s smartphone, smart home, and TV products wouldn’t be the successful cross-hardware ecosystems they are today without extensive partnerships and mutually beneficial collaboration. The recent Google and Samsung partnership for Wear OS 3.0 is just such an example. Considering that Google has repeatedly shown that it cannot be trusted to properly integrate its portfolio of giant services even on its own material, it’s good that the search giant is ostensibly so open to playing nice to others.
However, the company’s actions over the past decade have often failed to live up to this philosophy. On the one hand, Google advocates openness and competition while keeping an iron grip on its software on the other. This is especially true when it comes to Android and its bigger tech rivals.
You don’t have to look far to find examples of Google’s uncooperative approach to competing ecosystems. At the start of the last decade, Google infamously blocked Microsoft’s YouTube app for Microsoft’s unfortunate Windows phones. For more recent examples, Google would have banned Android TV partners from engaging with other Android forks (see: Amazon Fire TV). The Mountain View firm also dragged heels update its applications to meet the new privacy labels of the Apple App Store.
The most controversial and powerful tool with which Google asserts its control over Android and its associated app ecosystem is Google Mobile Services (GMS). GMS is a set of programming features (APIs) that allow developers to leverage Android tools for location data, payments, security, and other very common features used by closed Google apps and third-party software.
Android might be open source, but you have to follow Google’s rule if you want to access the biggest app store in the ecosystem.
However, GMS licenses are only granted to devices that comply with Google’s Compatibility Definition Document (CDD) and associated tests. This means that you need to support all of Google’s services like Ads and Store even if you just want to use Google’s location API. Even then, obtaining a license is subject to strict conditions. The 2013 Play Store license agreement required that companies take no action that could cause “Android fragmentation.” Like the development of a forked operating system. Competition is good, but only when it benefits Google.
Such demands have been deemed unfair in the EU, resulting in a heavy $ 5 billion fine in 2018. The decision finally saw the company modify its European requirements for Google services on Android in 2018. Of course, that hasn’t changed the status quo in other markets, notably the United States.
The Big G markets GMS and its Play Services as tools to ensure consistent, high-quality user experiences across applications and hardware. This is true to some extent. However, it’s also a stick with which to push and punish manufacturers who dare to take Android in its own direction. And remember, Google ultimately decides and maintains what happens in the main Android open source project.
While Android remains free for anyone to use as they wish, only Android-enabled devices benefit from the full Android ecosystem.
Importantly, without GMS, your device cannot run Google’s own apps or other apps that rely on related services and APIs. The loss of the Google Play Store is arguably the biggest potential loss, but there are other features like Uber locations or WhatsApp’s Drive backup feature that rely on GMS for basic functionality. This is the reason why Amazon and Huawei – which the latter has seen its the smartphone empire is collapsing outside of China without access to GMS – both have their own app stores and a more limited selection of software on their forced versions of Android OS. And yes, that also means Windows 11 won’t offer all of the apps you’re probably used to using in Google’s ecosystem.
So why is all of this important? For starters, it shows how Google controls developer tools, distribution platforms, and even hardware that falls under its ecosystem. It’s a self-executing power structure that Google won’t easily part with, especially for a rival like Microsoft.
The result is a contradictory approach to open collaboration. The company has long touted the benefits of open software and standards, but firmly opposes competition at the edges of its ecosystem. Google could compromise and make GMS more easily accessible to bring its entire application library to Windows and other ecosystems, but it chose not to. Just like the way he brought the Play Store to Chrome OS but not to Linux more broadly.
The irony is that Google had the right message for years, but its current approach is increasingly flawed. Consumers are more likely to adopt platforms that allow them to run the same software on multiple devices. Ideally, I want to run the exact same messaging, fitness tracking, and banking apps with identical functionality on all of my gadgets. Support for Amazon’s Android apps on Windows is a major step towards this reality. Likewise, there is a similar direction of movement at Apple, which is quickly targeting parity of apps and hardware on iOS, iPad and Mac.
Google’s contradictory approach to open collaboration prevents it from delivering apps and services to millions of additional devices and users.
Google risks losing cross-platform momentum while its biggest rivals capitalize on it. Amazon is expected to benefit from app sales and much more exposure on Microsoft’s platform. I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon’s Fire TV, tablet, and smart home products also see sales increase. Meanwhile, Windows 11 benefits from a host of new cross-platform applications and represents a further step outside of the traditional PC-only basis of the venerable operating system.
Panos Panay, Product Manager for Windows, recently said that all stores and apps are welcome on Windows, hinting that the company remains open to working with Google. But unless Amazon’s move really does shake things up, it seems doubtful that Google wants to loosen the grip on its Android app ecosystem and give us the IT vision it has been talking about for so long.