Does Google really want third-party app stores on Android or are they a 'necessary evil'?

Galaxy Apps
Galaxy Apps (Image credit: Android Central)

Android isn't as open as most people think, at least when a phone maker wants to include the Google Play Store.

It's not closed in the way iOS is, where every single piece of content has to go through Apple's approval process, but manufacturers have a long list of details that are required by Google if they want to include Google's own apps and services. Since those are what actually make an Android phone worth buying, phone makers do it, even if they aren't happy about it.

Phone makers aren't required to use Google Play.

But you're not required to use Google's services, including the Google Play Store, on your Android phone. There are plenty of other ways to download and install applications to your Android phone, and many of them use a competing service like Bing or Mapquest.

The official word from Google about third-party distribution makes it sound like Google loves the idea. From the Android Developer site:

As an open platform, Android offers choice. You can distribute your Android apps to users in any way you want, using any distribution approach or combination of approaches that meets your needs. From publishing in an app marketplace to serving your apps from a website or emailing them directly to users, you're never locked into any particular distribution platform.The process for building and packaging your apps for distribution is the same, regardless of how you distribute them. This saves you time and lets you automate parts of the process as needed.

Google does go on to say that the best way to "reach the broadest possible audience" (read: be successful) is to use a marketplace like Google Play, but there are no real restrictions. You don't even have to use Google's official Android Developer Suite or pay any money for access to Android's Open-Source set of APIs. Just write your code, build it, and go.

The whole mess I like to call the Fortnite Fiasco brings a few questions into play. According to Epic Games' legal filing, which states:

Google has eliminated competition in the distribution of Android apps using myriad contractual and technical barriers. Google's actions force app developers and consumers into Google's own monopolized "app store"—the GooglePlay Store. Google has thus installed itself as an unavoidable middleman for app developers who wish to reach Android users and vice versa. Google uses this monopoly power to impose a tax that siphons monopoly profits for itself every time an app developer transacts with a consumer for the sale of an app or in-app digital content. And Google further siphons off all user data exchanged in such transactions, to benefit its own app designs and advertising business.

There's a bit of hyperbole in that convoluted paragraph, to be sure. But the gist of it may be spot on. Google knows that phones in the West that ship without Google Play are at a big disadvantage and it does nothing to address those concerns.

Google doesn't have to do anything about it unless a court decides that Google Play and the requirements for app distribution through it are in fact anti-competitive. It's actually in Google's best interests to not do anything to help third-parties who want to reach more users because of the way Android makes money.

Ask Huawei what happens to phone sales in the West if you don't include Google Play.

Google doesn't charge any person or any company to use Android. Not me, not you, not Samsung. There are licensing requirements as mentioned above, though, if you want to bundle Google's other properties and services into the software. That's because Google knows how we use our phones and how to get more eyeballs on ads or more users on a particular service. That's how Google makes money, by selling ad space.

Google also makes money by charging developers a 30% transaction fee whenever someone spends money in an app through Google's payment process. If you buy an in-app purchase that costs one dollar, Google takes 30 cents. Google also makes it easy to use GoogleAds inside a free app, and even has a service that developers can use for Play Store promotion. Google likes things a certain way so it can recoup the cost of Android.

Third-party app stores are part of Android's "openness".

None of this is nefarious and any company would use these sorts of tactics when it could. What makes it an issue, and what Epic Games is claiming, is when a company is so large it has too much influence over the entire industry. It's hard to argue that Google is that dominant.

Google needs to keep allowing third-party store access to Android if it wants to be considered the "open" platform. But it doesn't have to like it.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.