Android’s Google Apps Agreement: Google’s Leverage Over OEMs

A few days ago I dove into the lawsuit filed by Skyhook against Google, and came to the conclusion that Skyhook’s case – while an entirely plausible sequence of events considering Google is a big company and hence prone to abuse – simply wasn’t a very good one. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt has given a rather generic-looking statement on the matter, but however generic it may be, there’s a hint in there.

In the Skyhook case, which I covered in detail, Skyhook claims Google forced Motorola and Company X into using Google Location Services, despite the fact that these two phone makers had already entered into contract to use Skyhook’s XPS services. Skyhook claims that Google either wanted Skyhook’s XPS and Location Services to run side-by-side, or to not use XPS at all. Running them side-by-side would give Google access to Skyhook’s better (Skyhook’s words) location data.

Skyhook argued that this was all because Android’s Compliance Definition Document was vague and open to any interpretation Google saw fit. Upon studying this document, however, it became clear that the CDD is anything but vague, and rather straightforward and easy to understand, and as such, it seemed very unlikely to me that Google could hold the CDD up to Motorola and force them to do anything. On top of that, the CDD had nothing to say about location services at all.

I concluded that a more likely candidate for Google to pressure Motorola with is the secret agreement concerning the Google applications and Market access. Since this agreement is secret, Skyhook can’t build a case around it, and as such, it is firced to focus on the publicly available CDD instead.

However, Skyhook itself provided the evidence against this secret agreement being a vague document Google can pressure OEMs with; not only did Skyhook point out that Android devices have already shipped with different location services, but Motorola and Company X also told Skyhook that their agreements with Google allowed switching location services.

Still, weak case or no, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Google abusing its power – it comes naturally to any large company, whether it carries a fluffy bunny unicorn motto or not. Now Google CEO Eric Schmidt implicitly confirmed that the secret agreement – and not the CDD as Skyhook claims – is the leverage with which Google blocked Skyhook from Motorola’s devices.

“Android is an open platform and device makers are free to modify the Android source code to customize or disable any range of features for Android devices,” Schmidt said, “However, if someone wishes to market a device as being Android compatible or to include Google applications on the device, we require the device to conform with some basic compatibility requirements to help ensure a consistent experience for users and a consistent platform for developers.”

My bold, and bingo. The CDD is far too clear and specific to be used as a pressure tool, and as such, the secret Google applications agreement was a far more likely candidate – it’s secret for a reason, wouldn’t you think? Seeing how Android devices have already shipped with non-Google location services, and seeing how both Motorola and Company X did not see any problems in the secret agreement, it must mean that either the agreement is intentionally vague, or has been quickly amended by Google when they learned about Skyhook’s success.

Ironically, this is what Schmidt said earlier during the interview, when asked about why Google isn’t forcing OEMs to give their users the option of transforming their device into stock Android, updated by Google. “The fact of the matter is that if we were to put those type of restrictions on an open source product, we’d be violating the principle of open source,” Schmidt replied.

Android is open source. The Google applications (and thus, access to the Market), are not. Google can apparently use the agreement covering these applications to pressure OEMs, despite the starry-eyed answer by Schmidt regarding Android’s open source-ness. Sure, you could ship your Android device without Google applications and Market access, but who’s going to buy that?

Google gets the open source fuzzies, but also the control it needs to force its own services onto OEMs. It’s damn brilliant.


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