The EU Antitrust case against Android sucks for everyone, especially you

Google's Mountain View campus
Google's Mountain View campus (Image credit: Android Central)

The European Union just told Google it has 90 days to pay €4.34 billion ($5.06 billion) for violating its antitrust rules, claiming the company has been forcing manufacturers to bundle Google Search, Chrome, and the Play Store as a bundle in phones that ship with Android. Since most people use the apps that are included on the phone, this move supposedly encourages people to use Google products without ever trying anything else. Google is appealing the ruling, claiming Android gives people more choice and creates a firm ground for developers to build for the largest possible audience. While there's undoubtedly going to be some conversation in the coming weeks over what that appeal is going to look like, it's clear Google's explanations for how Android functions openly is no longer enough, and things are probably going to have to change.

And, if you ask me, that sucks.

How we got here

In the early days of Android, Google let manufacturers put basically whatever they wanted on the phone as long as some minimum system requirements were met for the Android Market. And manufacturers did, in fact, install whatever they wanted. We had phones launch in the U.S. with over 100 pre-loaded apps; phones launch with Bing as the default search engine; and so many other generally terrible and user-hostile offerings to please the companies funding the launch — mainly carriers and manufacturers. These phones were terrible, and remained terrible when they didn't get a single software update. It was a bad time, and made recommending anything that didn't have the Nexus branding on the side pretty difficult.

Around 2013, Google stepped up and added restrictions to its Google Mobile Services agreements. Those restrictions included what could be placed on the home screen someone sees when the phone first starts, how many apps could be pre-installed, and a bunch of other very specific details. These agreements are all private between Google and its partners, but every once in a while details are made public for these agreements. Basically, as long as the manufacturer follows those rules it gets access to Google's Play Services and suite of apps like Chrome, Search, YouTube, Maps, and so on.

This is where things get a little iffy. Several versions of this agreement have required Google apps to be front and center on that initial home screen. Google's Search bar needed to be there, and folders with Google's apps needed to be there. And if you look at any new Android phone today, that initial home screen is pretty much identical across the ecosystem. Google's placement is prominent, specific, and consistent across the Android landscape right now — as long as that phone ships with the Play Store.

What the EU sees as wrong

The claim against Google right now is that, in forcing manufacturers to put these three apps front and center, it strong-arms its partners, prevents suppresses competition, and keeps people from looking at other options. Specifically, the EU says including Google Search, Chrome, and the Google Play Store as mandatory apps in the Google Mobile Services bundle is wrong. Many analysts have likened Android today to how Windows looked before Microsoft lost its own antitrust cases in the mid-90's. If people don't know there are other choices, they won't go looking for them. There are a few problems with this comparison, but the overall claim is Google has forced people to use its apps and is reaping the benefits of that enforcement.

Android is only as good as it is now because of the Google Play Store.

Google's response makes a lot of sense. Anyone can uninstall or disable the pre-loaded apps and replace them with different apps from any developer. Many manufacturers make their own versions of Google's apps and install them right alongside Google's. And if manufacturers want Android itself to come with no strings attached, manufacturers don't need to use the Play Store. Android is free code that anyone can fork or alter, as Amazon has been doing for years. But the Google Play Store and its related apps do have some big rules to follow. That distinction has never really been clear to the public, because while Google wants people to know Android is open it also wants people to know Google and Android are one and the same.

There's a lot about this EU ruling which is troubling. First, the EU seems to only care about three of the eleven apps Google is including in its bundle. There's no call to strip Google Maps, for example, only Search, Chrome and the Play Store. Second, this decision fundamentally misunderstands how deeply integrated into one another these systems are and seems to intentionally observe them as standalone apps. Android is only as good as it is now because of the Google Play Store and Play Services. Through this, Google enforces security across the platform and wraps up a majority of the new features you hear about when a new version is announced. Android without Google services isn't just Android without apps, it's an entirely different and significantly less functional experience.

The appeal being made by Google is essentially claiming the environment it created within Android allows for more choice instead of less. Developers can build for a single platform and get a consistent experience across thousands of different devices, which manufacturers can give users access to by following Google's rules. With all of these manufacturers competing on such even software footing, the hardware-based feature fight has caused the price of hardware to go down which Google says is also good everyone. By creating a single platform for all of these manufacturers to compete against Apple, Google claims its decisions have been a net positive.

The future might suck a lot if Google loses

When Microsoft was slapped with antitrust fines, it reacted by removing Internet Explorer entirely and giving users multiple browsers to choose from. The company later backed down from this and went back to including its own browser but making it very easy to install others, but the overall decision did not make Internet Explorer more or less popular. That browser already had lots of problems and even more competition, and without pointing fingers at other popular mobile platforms it is a nontrivial detail that Google allows you to set any app as the default, such as the browser.

Chrome, inside Android, encourages a lot of choice for users.

Android is overall a little different from Windows anyway. The mobile platform tightly integrates a lot of things, and Chrome is much more than just an app. Micro versions of Chrome exist in many Android apps, because developers recognized this mini Chrome was much more stable and functional than building their own in-app browser. Chrome is the underpinning for things like Android Instant Apps, which directly encourages developers to build tools that make it easier for users to try new apps and move away from the installed default. Chrome, inside Android, encourages a lot of choice for users. Taking that away will absolutely make Android users less likely to try new things and just stick with what is installed.

Assistant is another thing that will suffer if this decision forces Google to disconnect its apps from the central nervous system of Android. Access to Google's knowledge graph is what makes Assistant so powerful, and Search is arguably the most important part of that. Bing is never going to integrate into Google Assistant to provide results, even if those results were worth using. There's no arguing Assistant is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition right now because of its ability to deeply yet safely integrate into the lives of its users, and removing that key component could take a very long time to functionally work around.

Google has been building toward this grand unified experience for a while now, and a lot of that work will take several steps back as a result of this decision if it is enforced. Here's hoping the appeal yields positive results.

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

  • While I'm not entirely convinced about the EU ruling, this is a very biased article, which completely overlooks one of the arguments made by the EU, which is that it's not okay for Google to prohibit OEMs to sell ANY Android-based device without Google services if they want to sell even one of those. Imagine if Android were open-source from some other company and Google only made the Play Services and placed this restriction on OEMs. Not cool, right?
    Now you may say, but Google is the one developing Android - well, yes, but that's their choice, with its respective consequences. I think this article also misunderstands this ruling as OEMs not being allowed to bundle Google and Chrome anymore but that's absolutely not the case. It's about giving them the choice not to, despite bundling the Play Services. I see no reason why the majority of OEMs would stop bundling Google with their phones. And if some OEM does, you have the choice to go to another (or just download the app yourself). "Second, this decision fundamentally misunderstands how deeply integrated into one another these systems are and seems to intentionally observe them as standalone apps."
    They absolutely are standalone apps. I use Google Maps but I don't use Chrome and there is no problem at all. Even so, I don't really see how this should in any way have an influence on the EU ruling. "Micro versions of Chrome exist in many Android apps, because developers recognized this mini Chrome was much more stable and functional than building their own in-app browser."
    What does this have to do with anything here? "Bing is never going to integrate into Google Assistant to provide results, even if those results were worth using."
    So in the theoretical case that some OEM would not bundle Google for some reason (which won't happen in most cases) and a user of that phone wanted to use Google Assistant, why couldn't they just download the Google search app?
  • Sorry I can easily name you over 5 brand including Amazon that use android whitout google service. You are clearly the biased one and the rest of your comment has nothing ground. Don't speak about stuff you do not understand plz.
  • I now see that I didn't word my post very clearly. What I meant to say was that what Google does not allow an OEM is to sell a device with Google Play and one without, at least not in the same market. If you want to sell a device with Google Play, then you are not allowed to sell another device without it.
  • I think you misunderstand that Chrome and Google and other Google apps aren't just apps, they are also APIs that can break a lot of apps that rely on them if they aren't present. Even if you don't use Chrome, some of your apps likely need Chrome's libraries to function.
  • Do they? I can disable/uninstall Chrome just fine and I've never seen a problem. What would those APIs be?
    And even if they do exist, is there a particular technical necessity to make them part of the Chrome browser?
  • Gatanui, you are a complete DUMB-ASS!
  • Wait... you uninstalled Chrome from a Google Play Services enabled Android device? Did you root it? And what happens if you use an app that uses Chrome within the app (official Reddit app for example uses Chrome to display websites)?
  • I didn't uninstall it but I did disable it. Not sure why I said uninstall in my post above, I think it was late.
    In that case, those apps use Android WebView instead, don't they?
  • Disabling it just prevents it from running as an independent app. The APIs are still there, and parts of it still run when using countless apps. I'm actually pretty sure that you haven't disabled it though, but only hidden it instead. PS: Webview is a system component, and part of Chrome. In Windows it would be considered a DLL library.
  • I did fully disable it, as in going to settings and tapping the disable button.
    Isn't there Android System WebView as a separate app that acts as a fallback if Chrome is not present, though?
  • "They absolutely are standalone apps. I use Google Maps but I don't use Chrome and there is no problem at all. Even so, I don't really see how this should in any way have an influence on the EU ruling." No, they are ***NOT*** stand alone apps. They may look like that to you, someone who clearly doesn't have any software development background, but they are DEEPLY integrated. When you tap on a restaurant in maps, it uses CHROME to find hours of operation, reviews, etc. When you tap on an address it uses MAPS to provide you a link to a map. Just because they have different icons does not mean they aren't connected. Behind the scenes they share data sources, code libraries and services. Trying to unglue all of that would be like taking the internet back to Web 1.0 days.
  • Eh, this isn't entirely true. I don't believe Maps uses a mini-Chrome view. You can say it uses Google Search to provide those hours of operation, but I'm pretty sure its not relying on a webview to display that information. And Chrome uses "Google Maps the online service", but not "Google Maps the app" to provide you that map in search (same as on your desktop, which you don't need Google Maps installed).
    Not saying I agree with the original poster, just saying this isn't why you should disagree.
  • I absolutely do have software development background, it's how I earn my money.
    None of the things you said require Chrome and Maps to share any code. Neither does tapping on a restaurant in Maps require the Chrome app in any shape or form (it may require a WebView but Chrome is not the only one there, see Android System WebView) nor does tapping an address need any code from the Maps app. Do you know what "deeply integrated" means?
  • You kind of have to hack phones without Google Services to use the Play Store. A large number of Google and non-Google apps rely on Google Play Services. The "mini-chrome" comment is that you need Chrome to utilize mini-chrome. If you visit a site in mini-chrome, its using components from Chrome to do so (that's why it'll show up in your history on the main chrome app). So Chrome is extremely important to have on the phone. Maps wasn't mentioned as one of the apps they wanted to drop, so its great that you think its not tied to Chrome, but it *is* tied to Google Play Services, so its actually tied to the Play Store in a way. Search is probably the only one you sort of can make an argument that its not as big of a deal as the others. You can use Bing as your search engine and still use Assistant. Those search engines don't have to match. But Chrome and Play Services... those are pretty much requirements if you want a large user base and a secure environment.
  • You don't need "mini-chrome", though, as there is also Android System WebView as a fallback.
    I absolutely agree that Play Services are pretty much a requirement for an Android device in Europe (don't agree about Chrome, though). So basically apart from the point about Chrome we're agreeing here.
  • Again, Webview is powered by Chrome. It's just a system component, and uses Chrome to do the heavy lifting. SMH.
  • Can you explain to me what this is then? Yes, it's powered by Chromium - not by the Chrome app, though, which is what we're talking about here (or at least I am). The Chrome app absolutely can provide WebView but when the Chrome app is not present or disabled, you can use Android System WebView (see my link) instead, which does not require Chrome to be installed on your device. It's basically a copy of the Chrome JS and HTML engines, sans Chrome's UI, syncing etc.
  • Completely agree with you. Very biased article that doesn't seem to understand the Windows comparison.
    This is exactly the same as Windows.
    All UWP apps (as well as WPF and Forms by default) that need browser services use API calls to the web engine behind Edge (prior to Windows 10 it was the web engine behind IE). Microsoft was able to extricate the IE browser (front end) and still had the web engine. There's no reason why Android couldn't have the Webkit engine without having to have Chrome (the browser front end) installed. As for the Play Store - I don't see what the issue is with it being built in if you want Google's Android. It's no different to Windows or iOS/MacOS. I think the Play Store should be locked to only Google's Android, as just like the Windows Store and iTunes, developers know exactly the OS and available APIs they are building to this way. Overall the argument that "users can install whatever they want" doesn't fly because Microsoft already got burnt with that and this is the same situation.
  • This is what happens when you abuse your market position. I am actually surprised androidcentral even posted this article as they never ever say a bad word about google.
  • They abused it so bad to make Android consistent and a whole lot less fragmented than it was in the Moto Droid / HTC G1 days .. let them abuse away. Otherwise as others have said .. a Pixel is the only choice. And you'll never get another Samsung update again .. only pressure from Google has made this happen with their monthly patch releases. If it wasn't for this abuse as you call it ... we'd be 1k worse.
  • Honestly, I think both parties are wrong here. Google shouldn't have been pushing *all* of its apps. If they just left Chrome, Play Store installed, but left the other apps and search up to the OEM, EU may not have noticed anything that bad. Google would just have to enforce that the apps must come through the Play Store and all apps can be uninstalled (except Chrome & Play Store) and that search can be changed by the user. If they had done this, maybe the EU wouldn't have said anything. But to have all of Google Docs (definitely not required) and everything front and center and not uninstallable, they went too far, but the EU is focusing on the wrong things and that's where the EU isn't seeing it correctly.
  • The simple answer here is that if people want the Android experience that Google intends then they should just buy a Pixel or Android One device. That advice has not really changed for years. I might not like the EU decision, but it's really hard to dismiss the claims as without merit.
  • Except buying a pixel or android one device isn't going to stop what the EU is complaining about.... 
  • This is about choice for OEMs more than choice for users, so Pixel has nothing to do with this really.
  • That is his point. Other OEM's may change what they do with the phones because of this ruling, but as Google is the one selling the Pixel, they will not be effected by the rulling
  • Exactly. The argument against the EU ruling is essentially "the user experience will suffer", but for the user a solution to that already exists. That segment of the Android market (those that want Android the way Google intended) is already best served by the devices that Google sells themselves. In fact, the more I think about it, the more the EU ruling makes sense from a consumer choice perspective. There is of course risk that it goes way too far in that direction....
  • The problem with your opinion, is the fact that not all of us want a sub par pixel phone with software bugs up the wazoo, no headphone jack, no SD card, no dual SIM option, no Amoled on all devices,, come on we don't all want some crappy pixel products. Some of us some of us actually like having options like MST technology for Samsung pay, O LED displays, headphone jacks, s pen, how about LG's V40 coming out - you can't have absolutely premium sound you can't get any of that with a crapy assed pixel! If you want a pixel experience I can have a Samsung phone with Nova launcher or action launcher and get a pixel style experience while still retaining my hardware that is actually superior. The EU in is the butt the fu*k out!
  • Samsung isn't prohibited by the EU to offer the Playstore/services bundle with all the apps, but I do agree with the EU that Samsung shouldn't be forced to install each and every app Google sees fit.
    Also, Samsung should indeed be allowed to sell their own Android fork. I don't even think they will try anymore, but Google shouldn't have the de facto power to prevent them to even try competing with Google Services.
  • Samsung has a pretty clear history of making garbage "clone" apps and services that have taken more than a few iterations to get only a few of them in a semi decent state.
    Letting them loose to release their own versions of everything would be extremely detrimental for the perceived usability and security of Android. They (or any of the OEM's for that matter) will never out-do Google's services and the resulting fragmentation of Android as they all try to force people to use their own apps will just drive Apple to be the dominant player in the mobile market.
  • Samsung could still make a phone with all the features you want. Just maybe not with the version of Android that you want. No one would be stopping them. They already make phones that DON'T address the market I specified....those that want the Android experience Google intended. Same with LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, etc.
  • So, the solution is market fragmentation? You want to make Android more like Linux?
  • What you call market fragmentation others call competition.
  • I imagine that Google can still enforce consistency and guidelines without requiring Google apps. Or you know... shut the whole thing down, go the Apple route, and crank out Pixels. (I kid, of course).
  • You might be kidding, but going the closed-ecosystem would be a perfectly reasonable response from Google. Moreover, they've set themselves up perfectly do to just that on a moment's notice. It's very possible that in the near future, Google will tell every Android manufacturer that they can no longer include the Play Store on devices sold in the EU (but they can everywhere else). Suddenly, your smartphone market consists of Apple, Google, and Samsung (since they have their own app store).
  • The more likely case is they use a closed-source license for future AOSP releases. They can modify the setup screens to allow people to change their search engine, browser, email client, and so forth
  • They can do the latter without any need for the former, though.
  • Why exactly would they do that instead of just lifting the requirement to bundle all Google apps for devices sold in the EU? That makes no sense at all. Sure, they'd suffer some losses that way but significantly less than if they did as you suggested.
  • So they should put all the hard work and man power to give it away for free and let OEM's do as they please with it? The entire reason Google "tightened things up" was because back when android first started it was a dumpster fire of access and usability (and as someone who lived through Verizon and their shenanigans preloading every and any garbage app as the default, I am glad Google pulled things back. Not to mention the EU seems to be only taking issue with a limited number of pre-loaded apps (not all of the bundled apps).
  • It was Google that decided to use the give it for free business model. Do you think they would have got to 80% market share if they had kept it on their phones only?
  • Ok, so how were OEMs like Samsung, LG, etc., doing before Android compared to today? Both sides one in the partnership, but now some of the OEMs want a larger piece of the pie, and this effort by the EU has strong backing from a log of Google's competition, Microsoft, Oracle, various search providers, all of whom have a vested interest seeing Google taken down a few pegs.
  • Chrome and the Play Store (and the associated Play Services) are the only real apps that need to be bundled. Beyond that, you have a point that I agree with. Google Docs, Maps, etc. don't need to be installed and Search is easily dealt with (just have them choose the default upon setup). However, 2 of the 3 complaints really can't be fixed in the way the EU wants.
  • Serves Google right, they used to rat out and complain against Microsoft bundling IE in Windows as an anti-trust case, enjoy your own medicine now.
  • Really? The end to their anti-trust trial over IE was in 2001 ... Chrome was released in 2008. So maybe a URL of them ******** about this? :D
  • In the 90s?
  • Microsoft got what they deserve, Google's isn't doing anything wrong here,it's not like you're forced to use Google's apps, pike down Google hater. I'm with Google on this one. Google is only ever been about giving users choice with Android.
  • I think you misunderstand the complaint. Google is doing almost exactly the same thing as MS did. "Google is only ever been about giving users choice with Android" - or the illusion of choice. Most users (those that don't read AC and other tech blogs) probably have no idea that you can change the web browser, or the keyboard, or that you can use a third party email client. Can you change the default search engine used with the GOOGLE search bar/widget? Nope, which is specifically one complaint the EU has. I sound like a Google hater, and I'm not. I have a Pixel 2 XL and I love it. But I'm also able to see how they can use their dominance in the market place to squeeze out other players. Just like MS did with IE back in the day....
  • It's not the same thing that Microsoft was fined for. The problem back then was Microsoft had been trying to fork the internet...literally. They introduced proprietary web technologies and idiosyncratic behavior in Internet Explorer that often made web sites incompatible with other browsers. I was an early adopter of the Phoenix browser on Windows. At least a third of the websites that I came across did not render properly and many outright refused to load. Some websites would run a browser check, and if IE wasn’t detected then I would be kicked out to an error page. Even though we had the freedom of installing another browser, there wasn’t much utility in it. In the end, the undoing of Internet Explorer was not really due to the decoupling the browser from the OS, it was because of the poor performance and security of IE in comparison to rival browsers. That's the difference. Google isn't spurning standards, it's trying to establish them so apps can run consistently across devices.
  • It's actually both. But note which reason is listed first. Also, if you think Google can't try to "fork" the internet just give it some time. Remember when they forked Webkit and created Blink? The evidence gathered during the investigation leads the Commission to believe that the tying of Internet Explorer with Windows, which makes Internet Explorer available on 90% of the world's PCs, distorts competition on the merits between competing web browsers insofar as it provides Internet Explorer with an artificial distribution advantage which other web browsers are unable to match. The Commission is concerned that through the tying, Microsoft shields Internet Explorer from head to head competition with other browsers which is detrimental to the pace of product innovation and to the quality of products which consumers ultimately obtain. In addition, the Commission is concerned that the ubiquity of Internet Explorer creates artificial incentives for content providers and software developers to design websites or software primarily for Internet Explorer which ultimately risks undermining competition and innovation in the provision of services to consumers.
  • Forking a browser isn't forking the internet. MS was basically pushing for an internet that only worked on IE (remember back in the day... "This website is best viewed in Internet Explorer"). Forking Webkit is nowhere near the same thing. Microsoft tried to change the roads so only MS-branded cars could drive on it. Google just made a second kind of car, but still pushed for the roads to be driveable by everybody. Kind of a weird analogy, but I hope it makes it clear how way off base this part of the discussion has gotten.
  • This. Even website development was a pain, because you essentially had to code two versions if you wanted it to work on all browsers. One correctly coded to standards version for everything BUT IE, and one version for IE with its non-standard (and sometimes flat out buggy - which you'd include a workaround) implementation of standards.
  • You're actually missing the point entirely. The primary reason the EU went after them was bundling. The secondary reason was everything else. I don't recall 100% for sure (and could therefor be wrong), but the EU did not force MS to change the way they were building IE, nor did they force MS to change IE to comply with web standards. Is that correct? They ONLY cared about bundling stifling user choice and competition.
  • How the hell do regular users not know they can change the apps when after you open ANY browser or even text message apps etc. You are BY DEFAULT allowed to choose to change the app FOR EVERY APP all the time. Those apps show pop ups to let you decide if you want to CHOOSE TO SET IT AS YOUR DEFAULT APP!!!! Please pick some new material
  • Users have to first know that alternatives to bundled apps exist.
  • You can use a different search bar/widget. Does the Bing search bar let you change the default search engine? No. In any case, I'm almost in agreement with you here. I think Google should allow the OEM to choose a search bar to include (but must be uninstallable) and just allow users to download a Google one from the Play Store. I don't agree with the EU on Play Services or Chrome though. Too many apps rely on them to work. Also, the Pixels aren't affected by this decision. Its all the other phones. The Pixel is more closed device than from other manufacturers. There are things you can change on other phones that you can't on a Pixel.