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EU dons gloves, pokes Google's deals with Android mobe makers

El Reg cops a squint at investigatory letters

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Exclusive Industry sources have confirmed to The Reg that the European Commission is once again prodding Google's Android contracts with phone makers. Preliminary letters, sent out a month ago, merely ask the phone makers if they find anything in Google's contracts restrictive.

We understand the Commission is particularly interested in any "lockout" clause in Google's MADA, or Mobile Application Distribution Agreement, which may impede a manufacturer from making a "non-Google" phone - one that uses services from other companies, such as HERE Maps or alternative app stores.

It could be a prelude to a full probe into Google's mobile business, but then again, it is no guarantee either that a formal investigation will actually take place. Similar letters went out last year.

Europe's outbound competition Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, confirmed in a letter sent to fellow Commissioners in June that the Android probe was the most advanced of several investigations that Almunia's DG-COMP was conducting into Google. These related to Google bundling its own services in markets where it enjoys a dominant position.

"The most advanced investigation relates to Google's Android operating system, which is currently the main operating system in smart mobile devices in Europe with a market share of around 70-80 per cent," wrote Almunia. "Google's position in this market is important as mobile devices will likely soon become more prominent than desktop computers to access the Internet."

How it works

Google releases Android source code, and claims this makes the system "open". But for a device to access Google's own services – such as Play and Maps – it must integrate a stack called GMS (Google Mobile Services) and pass strict compatibility tests devised by Google. The manufacturer pays a fee to a certified test centre - and if it passes, it gets to use the Android logo.

(See here for a now out-of-date MADA from 2011. And click here for the schedule of fees).

One phone maker told us:

"Android GMS is a big binary blob that you must integrate. Google has ratcheted it up over the past year. When you sign a MADA, you know it will change."

Two things have happened to pique interest in the MADA contracts. Google has become much more specific in its demands on the placement of the Google apps in Android and has also increased the relative importance of the GMS stack. While the Android footprint has shrunk, GMS has expanded dramatically. Over 5,000 new API calls were added for Android L (aka "Lollipop") last month.

"Google sees a phone as just another vertical. It's a display it controls, along with a TV or a watch or a thermostat," our man tells us.

All are data collection devices for Google's core consumer data-processing business.

However, Google appears anxious not to allow others to develop an "ecosystem" across these devices. It's also further restricting the freedom to decide how 'Droid phones should look - with its Silver programme.

Nokia and Amazon would prefer to include links to Google's Play store and services, but had to build their own app stores, forking the open-source Android base.

Samsung, a $70bn giant that's one of the few companies with the clout to take on Google, planned to create a coherent UI across many electronic devices. In January, it abandoned those plans, signing an agreement with Google to conform to Google's UI specs. Last month Google debuted "Material Design" - a consistent set of UI design principles across many electronic devices.

The contracts are no guarantee that Google will "own" the Internet of Things: the first generation of Android Wear smartwatches have poor battery life and outdoor usability. But who'd bet against Google?

"Many OEMs are not in a position to argue with Google," a phone maker told us.

"I'll get tough - just you see"
Almunia's letter to Commissioners leaked last month

It remains to be seen whether a full formal investigation will take place, or what Almunia's successor's position on the issue might be. The Register asked Google for its comment on the story, but had not received a response at the time of publication. ®

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