Android Is Free and Open, But Google Still Manages to Exert Significant Control

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Android’s open-source nature has always been one of its biggest selling points, but a few newly leaked documents imply that the popular mobile OS isn’t entirely free for manufacturers to use.

Android, Google, Samsung, HTCThe documents in question are copies of a “Mobile Application Distribution Agreement” (MADA) Google issued to HTC and Samsung in January 2011. In them, Google lays out the licensing terms Android device manufacturers must adhere to if they want to use the OS on their tablets or phones.

The papers suggest that Google imposed a series of restrictions and strict guidelines onto Android OEMs who wanted to give consumers access to the Google Play app suite on their devices. Essentially, it required manufacturers to preinstall the entirety of Google’s app library onto their tablets or phones, rather than allowing them to pick and choose whichever ones they’d like.

So, if a device maker like Samsung wanted to put hugely successful programs like Google Search, YouTube, and the Google Play Store on of its devices, it also would’ve had to preinstall Google Maps, Google Street View, and Google Talk, among others. It’s all or nothing.

Beyond that, the MADA also allowed Google to dictate where app icons would be placed on an agreeing OEM’s device. One excerpt states that OEMs must place Google’s search widget and Google Play app “at least on the panel immediately adjacent to the Default Home Screen,” for instance.

Device manufacturers also had to make Google’s Search engine and Network Location Provider app the default programs for their respective tasks, per the documents. OEMs were not allowed to interfere with the updating of these apps either, and they couldn’t have a say in which countries they were shipped to.

The search giant required OEMs to send it monthly reports detailing the sales figures for its Android devices as well, even asking for sales breakdowns “by Google Application, Territory and Device model within each Territory.” This would presumably give Google more comprehensive data for advertising purposes.

All of the terms within the MADA were non-negotiable, so this appears to be a bit of a “with us or against us” situation on Google’s part.

Android is still technically free to use, and the agreement itself is entirely voluntary. But unless an OEM wants to go the Amazon route and forego Google’s software might altogether, they have to play ball, allowing Google to give itself a favored position on the vast majority Android devices by default. That’s not the most unheard of thing in the mobile world, but it does contrast with Android’s “open” philosophy.

As an aside, it also helps explain why various Android tablets and phones in markets like China are being sold without access to the Google Play Store. If an OEM simply decides to forego access to Google’s official apps, it can get the number one mobile OS in the world at no cost.  

Details of the MADA documents were published by Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelmen — who, by his own admission, acts as a consultant to multiple Google competitors  — earlier this week. Previous MADA-related details were leaked back in 2010 during Google’s legal tiff with Skyhook Wireless, but the documents here paint a more modern picture of what’s needed to get an Android device to market.

“More” is the key word, though. These documents are three years old, and it’s possible Google has loosened its restrictions towards OEMs in any way as it moved from Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) to Android 4.4 (KitKat). Either way, though, it seems that Google has made a comprehensive effort to keep its “open” OS under control.

Google did not immediately respond to TabletPCReview‘s request for comment.

Source: Ben Edelman

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