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Google's SECRET contracts: Android lock-in REVEALED!

Take it all - or you can't come inside to Play [<- see what we did there? *nudge nudge*]

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Details of secret contracts that Google signs with phone manufacturers have become public for the first time, revealing the extent of the restrictions Google puts on Android smartphones.

In an email in 2011, a Google Android program manager injudiciously described the OS as a "club" to make phone makers "do what we want". But hard evidence has been lacking until now.

Many manufacturers, particularly in China, and most prominently Amazon in the West, use Android software without signing Google's Mobile Application Distribution Agreement (MADA). But that means they are locked out of Google's Play store and must source their own applications and find their own app store.

The MADA requires the licensee to preload all Google apps, and even specifies where they should appear on the Android phone's home screen. Academic Ben Edelman, a professor at Harvard Business School who has been paid by both Google and Microsoft for his research, discovered two MADA contracts with HTC and Samsung, made public when they became trial exhibits in the Oracle vs Google lawsuit. The contracts were submitted to open court but are not available online through PACER.

"Google does not demand that smartphone manufacturers make Google the default search engine as a condition of using the Android operating system," Schmidt informed Congress in written testimony in 2011, affirming it three times under questioning.

"One of the greatest benefits of Android is that it fosters competition at every level of the mobile market—including among application developers. Google respects the freedom of manufacturers to choose which applications should be pre-loaded on Android devices. Google does not condition access to or use of Android on pre-installation of any Google applications or on making Google the default search engine," said Schmidt.

And while this would appear to be the case, it only applies if you provide no access to the Google playground whatsoever. It's all or nothing at all...

Is this really EVIL, though?

At issue is the question of tying – using dominance in one market to distort another. It arose in the Microsoft antitrust trials with complainants demanding a version of Windows without Internet Explorer or Windows Media Player. At one stage during proceedings, Microsoft "complied" by producing a demonstration Windows that wouldn't boot.

But not all bundling is bad for the consumer, Edelman points out.

"Some ties yield useful efficiencies, and not all ties reduce welfare. But Google's use of tying gives it a leg up in numerous markets that would otherwise enjoy vibrant competition. Given Google's dominance in so many sectors, this practice deserves a closer look," he opines.

And there are downsides for Google in the long term, he argues:

"Suppose consumers understood that Google uses tying and full-line-forcing to prevent manufacturers from offering phones with alternative apps, which could drive down phone prices. Then consumers would be angry and would likely make their complaints known both to regulators and to phone manufacturers.

"Instead, Google makes the ubiquitous presence of Google apps and the virtual absence of competitors look like a market outcome, falsely suggesting that no one actually wants to have or distribute competing apps."

Edelman first came to prominence seeking legal protection for web filters. He has researched privacy and spyware and click fraud. A summary of the details and further analysis can be found here. ®

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