Sam­sung could win out from EU’s Google fine

What if Galaxy phones didn’t have Chrome, asks MICHAEL SI­MON

Android Advisor - - Contents -

In a land­mark rul­ing last month, the Euro­pean Union has hit Google with a record £3.9 bil­lion an­titrust fine over the way it dis­trib­utes An­droid. In the de­ci­sion, the court or­dered Google to change the way it bun­dles its own apps into its mo­bile oper­at­ing sys­tem, specif­i­cally Google and Chrome, within 90 days in an ef­fort to give its “ri­vals the chance to in­no­vate and com­pete”.

Google, of course, dis­agrees and has vowed to ap­peal the de­ci­sion. But while the case will likely

stretch out for years be­fore any fi­nal ac­tion is taken, the rul­ing is al­most cer­tain to af­fect the way Google makes and dis­trib­utes fu­ture ver­sions of An­droid. A fine this large is un­likely to be fully re­versed on ap­peal, so there’s a good chance that Google will be forced to change An­droid in some way down the line, which has the po­ten­tial to dra­mat­i­cally al­ter the way we de­cide which phone to buy.

With bil­lions of de­vices in the wild and a near-80 per­cent mar­ket share, An­droid cer­tainly isn’t in any dan­ger of los­ing its strong­hold. But one of its big­gest part­ners stands to gain a lot: Sam­sung.

Free with a catch

An­droid has long had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing free and open-source, but that’s not en­tirely the case. While it’s true that OEMs are free to ma­nip­u­late the An­droid code as they wish with­out any re­stric­tions – like, for ex­am­ple, Ama­zon’s Fire OS – most phone mak­ers opt to use the Google Play Store ver­sion of An­droid, which is far more con­di­tional.

Google makes li­cens­ing deals with ma­jor OEMS, not for the use of An­droid per se, but to en­sure that Google apps are the de­fault on all ship­ping phones. That’s why when you buy a phone from Sam­sung, Huawei, LG, or Google, you’re get­ting a base­line An­droid ex­pe­ri­ence tied into Google apps and ser­vices: Play Store for apps, Google for search, Chrome for web brows­ing, and As­sis­tant for AI.

This is what the EU sees as an anti-com­pet­i­tive prac­tice. Even though Google is es­sen­tially of­fer­ing the OS for free, by “mak­ing pay­ments to ma­jor

man­u­fac­tur­ers and net­work op­er­a­tors on con­di­tion that no other search app or search en­gine was pre-in­stalled”, it ef­fec­tively shut out any chance of com­pe­ti­tion on the most im­por­tant apps.

You’re prob­a­bly think­ing, “But I’m al­ready free to pick any de­fault app you want and delete any of Google’s apps, so what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that most cus­tomers will sim­ply use the app that’s pre-in­stalled on their phone, giv­ing Google a huge edge in the mar­ket. An­droid isn’t just made by Google, it’s the largest ves­sel for Google’s dom­i­nance and data col­lec­tion. With­out the re­la­tion­ship be­tween An­droid and Google, the apps and ser­vices we love so much might not work as well as they do.

An­droid with­out Google

While li­cens­ing deals and over-the-ta­ble pay­ments might sweeten the pot, the fact of the mat­ter is, most peo­ple want Google apps. Whether we’re us­ing An­droid, iOS, Win­dows, or macOS, Google Chrome and search are among the most-used for a rea­son: they’re the best. And the EU’s de­ci­sion, even if it stands, is un­likely to change that for a large por­tion of An­droid’s user base.

But there is one phone maker who could ben­e­fit from a po­ten­tial change to how Google does busi­ness with An­droid: Sam­sung. When you buy a Galaxy S9 phone, you’re not just get­ting the Play Store, Chrome, and the rest of Google’s An­droid apps. You’re also get­ting a full ‘Sam­sung Ex­pe­ri­ence’ that can op­er­ate fully in­de­pen­dent of Google. The S9 might run a fa­mil­iar ver­sion of An­droid Oreo, but just un­der­neath

the sur­face Sam­sung has its own browser, AI as­sis­tant, and app store.

So in­stead of launch­ing Chrome the first time you open a link on your Galaxy S9, you’ll get an op­tion to set a de­fault: ei­ther Google Chrome or Sam­sung In­ter­net. I’m will­ing to bet that most peo­ple ha­bit­u­ally se­lect Google Chrome and never think of it again, but the EU’s de­ci­sion could make it so Sam­sung doesn’t ac­tu­ally have to of­fer Chrome as a pre-in­stalled app on its An­droid phones. And that could fun­da­men­tally change the ex­pe­ri­ence for one of An­droid’s big­gest user bases.

Sam­sung Ex­pe­ri­ence pow­ered by An­droid

Many phone mak­ers al­ready make their own Mes­sages, Gallery, and Mail apps, but Sam­sung stands alone in

of­fer­ing a full suite of ser­vice and apps that counter rather than com­ple­ment Google’s. Sam­sung got so far as to de-em­pha­size Google apps in its phone in­ter­face – you’ll find them tucked away in their own folder in­sider the app drawer.

This de­ci­sion could be the open­ing Sam­sung has been wait­ing for to di­vorce its phones from Google al­to­gether. While it’s un­likely Sam­sung will sud­denly drop An­droid for its own Tizen oper­at­ing sys­tem that it uses on Gear watches, by elim­i­nat­ing Chrome and Google search from its phones, it would let Sam­sung carve out a dis­tinct foothold within An­droid. It could present a sys­tem where Google’s own apps op­er­ate as the third-party ones, es­sen­tially let­ting Sam­sung sell a forked ver­sion of An­droid with­out re­ally need­ing to fork it.

In a blog post an­nounc­ing the in­ten­tion to ap­peal, Google CEO Sun­dar Pichai protested the EU’s rul­ing. “Phone mak­ers don’t have to in­clude our ser­vices; and they’re also free to pre-in­stall com­pet­ing apps along­side ours,” Pichai said. “This means that we earn rev­enue only if our apps are in­stalled, and if peo­ple choose to use our apps in­stead of the ri­val apps.”

That may be true, but the cur­rent model is cer­tainly tipped in Google’s favour. Even on Galaxy phones, the onus is on the con­sumer to re­ject Google’s apps, mak­ing it much less likely they’ll choose a com­pet­ing one. Pichai ar­gued that the rea­son An­droid is free to OEMs is be­cause of this dis­tinc­tion, as “the An­droid busi­ness model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone mak­ers for our tech­nol­ogy, or de­pend on a tightly con­trolled dis­tri­bu­tion model”.

But if this de­ci­sion even­tu­ally stands, it could change the way cus­tomers use Google’s ser­vices on their phones. Paulo Trezen­tos, CEO of Ap­toide, one of the largest third-party app com­mu­ni­ties and one of orig­i­nal com­plainants who spurred the law­suit, said in a state­ment: “The EU’s rul­ing jus­ti­fy­ing our anti-trust ar­gu­ments is a pos­i­tive first step for­ward, for a mar­ket more open, more com­pet­i­tive and bet­ter tai­lored for the users.” Nowhere is that truer than on Sam­sung phones.

Five bil­lion dol­lars may be a drop in the bucket for Google, but the brew­ing war with one of its big­gest al­lies could have far more im­pact. And it’s one Sam­sung is well-pre­pared to fight.

Sam­sung al­ready of­fers all of its own apps on Galaxy phones, in­clud­ing a store

The Pixel and Galaxy could be­come com­peti­tors af­ter to­day’s EU de­ci­sion

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