Even for Google, $5 billion isn’t insignificant. In the last financial year, revenues at parent company Alphabet hit $110.8 billion, up $20bn on the previous period. The EU’s antitrust fine, which competition commissioner Margaret Vestager doled out this week, has certainly made executives in Silicon Valley sit up and listen.
But the money is the least of Google’s headaches. While it appeals the EU’s decision, in a process that will likely take several years, it also has to make changes to it’s Android system within 90 days.
This timeframe puts it on a collision course with Android P, the upcoming version of the operating system. Android P doesn’t have an official name yet but will be released to the public in the next three months as the final P beta has already been sent out to developers.
The commission found Google had created an unfair advantage with it’s Search and Google Chrome apps by requiring manufacturers using the Google Play Store put them on phones as defaults. The investigation also found that Google paid “significant” sums to other companies so they exclusively used Google products on their phones, and stopped competitors from creating modified versions of Android.
The company is dominant. Around 80 per cent of phones in Europe run on Android and 90 per cent of all apps downloaded on them come from Google’s own app store. On phones with Google Search and the Chrome Web browser installed, more than 95 per cent of all web searches are made using Google’s services.
At present it’s not known what Google will do with Android to meet the commission’s standards. The antitrust commission said it would monitor the changes Google makes over the coming three months. The company hasn’t made any statements about specific changes but here are a few of the ways Google could change Android to make it fall within antitrust laws in Europe.
Give users a choice
For new phones running Android perhaps the most likely option for Google is to not include any default apps whatsoever. When a new device is turned on a series of options could be displayed. What web browser would you like to use? What search engine? What mapping app? What news app? What video streaming services?
Once the phone was setup all these apps automatically start being installed in the background.
It would also result in a less bloated Android. In response to the commission’s decision Google CEO Sundar Pichai published a blog post saying most Android devices have up to 40 apps pre-installed when they’re produced by manufacturers. Plenty of these are bloatware that users can delete and probably never wanted.
The move isn’t unprecedented either. In 2009, after the EU found Microsoft installing Internet Explorer as default web browser had given it an unfair advantage in, the company agreed to create a BrowserChoice option. This showed web users ten different browser options, in a random order, that could be used instead of Microsoft’s.
It made a huge difference. In July 2008, according to analysis firm Statcounter, Internet Explorer had a 68.57 per cent share of the web browser market. Today, it has just 3.12 per cent.
As Google head’s toward the release of Android P it has started to make its operating system simpler for end users. More choice wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Stop letting Android be free
This one is a little more radical, but Pichai hinted there could be a future change. Phone manufacturers can easily download and edit versions of Android for their devices free of charge. The commission said Google has paid companies to include its software and hasn’t allowed its app store to be used under licences where it doesn’t approve of the modifications of Android. This could have big ramifications.
“So far, the Android business model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone makers for our technology, or depend on a tightly controlled distribution model,” Pichai wrote.
Just let manufacturers decide
Phone manufacturers don’t need to install Google services with Android, but according to the commission they see the Play Store as a “must-have” app. This means Search and Chrome are bundled in too. Instead, Google could offer versions of Android that allow the Play Store to be installed without any of its other services. The Play Store while having malware issues is the largest and safest place to download Android apps from.
In Microsoft’s antitrust browser case it considered offering a version of Windows 7 to PC manufacturers that didn’t include Internet Explorer. But the idea, like the suggestion that other browsers would also be included in Windows 7, didn’t fly.
Prompts to change browsers
There are millions of Android phones being used across Europe. Google could make send out an update to all handsets prompting people to make a choice about what apps they use.
In 2017, Google lost a very similar antitrust case in Russia. The case had been launched by Russian app Yandex.
As a result, Google updated its Chrome app with a prompt for mobile users that offered them a choice of preferred search engine: Yandex, Google or Mail.ru. Previously the only way to change the default option was to go through the settings.
Create new contracts
Aside from the installation of Google’s own apps and Play Store, the commission was concerned with the “significant” sums of money the firm had paid to other manufacturers. “Device manufacturers who wish to obtain Google’s proprietary Android apps and services need to enter into contracts with Google, as part of which Google imposes a number of restrictions,” the commission said.
The 90-day period Google has been given to make changes may put a strain on its lawyers. It’s likely these contracts with manufacturers – such as Samsung, Huawei, LG and other phone giants – are complex documents that can’t be rewritten quickly.
Google also has the option of doing nothing – but it could be costly. In Microsoft’s browser antitrust case with the EU, the tech company was fined €561m in 2013 for not giving users a choice of web browsers, as it had been told to do. In total, 15 million Europeans didn’t see the browser choice screen as a result of a technical error.