Google has been hit with a massive $5 billion fine by the EU this week for Android antitrust violations, with the European Commission claiming that Google has been taking advantage of Android to impose its own services — Google search, Chrome, and the Play Store — upon consumers and device makers.
It’s a confusing case, so I’ve taken a few minutes to try to break things down here and answer some of the bigger questions about what’s going on. It might stir memories of Microsoft’s ugly antitrust battle with the US government but there are some differences between the two. Here’s what’s going on with Google and the EU.
1. What exactly did Google do wrong here?
In short, the European Commission has ruled that Google has been unfairly using Android (which Google owns and develops) to push Google search (which makes up most of Google’s business) on users, giving them an unfair and uncompetitive advantage.
Specifically, it calls out three things:
- Google requires device makers to include search and Chrome in order to have access to the Play Store and other Google apps and services.
- Google “made payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators” to exclusively bundle the Google search app on handsets in favor of other search engines.
- Google has allegedly blocked phone makers from creating devices that run forked versions of Android. In other words, in order to get any Google apps — including the Play Store and Google search — phone makers had to agree not to develop or sell any devices at all that ran on an Android fork (like Amazon’s Fire OS for tablets).
2. Why doesn’t this apply to Apple?
The European Commission’s report says that it views Android as different from, say, Apple’s iOS or BlackBerry’s mostly defunct BlackBerry OS since those are exclusive, vertically integrated operating systems that can’t be licensed by third-party device manufacturers. Essentially, Apple can’t be held accountable for restricting itself to use its own apps on its own OS.
Since Google does make Android available to others, and is (in the opinion of the commission) using those companies and their devices to further increase Google search’s market dominance and mobile ad revenue, it’s on the hook here.
3. Can’t you install anything on Android? Why is the Play Store so important?
Strictly speaking, yes — it’s why Amazon’s Fire tablets and Fire TV devices exist and run Android, despite the fact that they don’t feature the Play Store or any of Google’s apps.
But according to the commission, the Play Store is too important for Android devices: it accounts for more than 90 percent of apps downloaded on Android devices, with the group claiming that device manufacturers consider it a “must-have” app (especially since it can’t be legally installed on Android devices if it isn’t already included).
The commission’s concerns stem from the fact that Google is using the Play Store as a incentive to force manufacturers to offer Google search and Chrome, with no option to only offer just the store, giving Google an unfair advantage when it comes to search.
In other words: Device manufacturers need the Play Store to be competitive. Google only gives the Play Store to companies that also agree to install search (and Chrome), which makes it dramatically more difficult for other search engines to compete.
4. If search is the problem, why is Chrome included?
At first glance, the EU’s ruling against forcing Google Chrome on users seems to be unfair. What does Google’s dominance with search have to do with a web browser? But Chrome is an essential avenue to Google search, so Chrome is bundled into the ruling, too.
5. What do other companies think?
For the most part, nothing. The Verge reached out to various Android OEMs, including Samsung, LG,, OnePlus, Nokia, BlackBerry, and Amazon, but only heard back from Motorola, Sony, and HTC, all of of which offered no comment on the news, with HTC adding that it will “defer to Google on decisions that impact the broader Android OS.”
6. What happens next?
Google has 90 days to comply with the European Commission, which would mean paying the $5 billion fine, stop forcing manufacturers to preinstall Chrome and Google search in order to offer the Google Play Store, and stop preventing phone makers from using forked versions of Android. Google is already appealing the result, so we’ll see if that actually ends up happening, but if it does, it could mean drastic changes for how Android operates in the future.
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