Is Google’s increasing control over Android good for users?

October 25, 2013

Friday Debate aa (1)

On this edition of the Friday Debate, we discuss a topic that generated hot disputes in the Android community in the past week: Google’s power play on Android. Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica recently published a thought-provoking piece where he outlines the way Google moved more and more of the features that were once part of AOSP into its own proprietary applications, thus increasing its control on the Android ecosystem and making it more difficult for other companies to fork it.

Some say that’s a perfectly justified move, others decry it as a betrayal of the ideals of open source software. The bigger question pertains to the effect of the move on consumers – sure, Google provides a great user experience through its apps, but competition is healthy and ultimately a diverse ecosystem may prove more benefic for users than a centralized one.

So, is Google’s increasing control over Android ultimately good for consumers? Is the move from open source to proprietary worrying you? How should other companies react?

Join us in the discussion, vote in our poll, and sound off in the comments!

Robert Triggs

Offering Android as a free and open platform was certainly beneficial to Google as much as it was to consumers looking for alternative products to Apple’s. Google has clearly done well out of it, and it’s hard to deny that its huge stack of resources makes it virtually impossible for anyone else to re-invent Android in another image.

If you’re wearing your skeptical cap, this could be viewed as an attempt to muscle out competitors and tighten its grip on Android. But I’m not convinced that this is Google’s intention, yet.

The company clearly has a vision for Android, and that necessitates the production of some proprietary software and services. It’s impossible for Google to open up all of its software to the open-source crowd, as this would deprive it of the fruits of that investment. As much or as little as the people at Google may believe in open-source, profits from closed software pays for investments in new projects to drive Android forwards.

Equally, there’s nothing, bar costs, stopping third party developers from competing with the vast majority of Google’s products, and many companies do. Google is certainly the benchmark to beat, but it’s not enforcing a monopoly. The company is simply ploughing the most resources into the project, which was always going to make it a tad lopsided.

However, consumers, developers, and Google should all be weary of the risks posed by a monopoly, mainly that of stagnating innovation. The greatest argument in favour of open-source projects isn’t that they’re “free” or that they fulfil a programmer’s Marxist fantasy, but that they are often cutting edge and sustained by the ease of access granted to developers. But by the same token, we must understand that smaller contributors and consumers shouldn’t be able to dictate how the resources of others are allocated, as this too stifles innovation.

With all that being said, if Android becomes an overly difficulty market to compete in, developers will, and should, look elsewhere, and everyone will lose out. We’ve all seen what happens when companies become blinded by their own vision, I’m looking at you Blackberry, so it’s in Google’s best interest to keep the playing field somewhat level.

Overall, I think that Android, and consumers, are better off thanks to Google’s efforts, but I’m undecided whether or not its dominant position will be detrimental to the platform in the long run. I’ll be eagerly watching Cyanogen Inc as a test of Google’s and consumers’ attitudes towards open-source.

Joe Hindy

Oh my there is a lot to talk about. First and foremost, Google closing source on Google Apps is not Google closing source on Android. The OS, insofar as I can tell, remains as open as it ever was with the same rules and restrictions it’s had for years now. So I don’t believe it’s Google trying to control Android, but more like Google trying to control their proprietary applications.

This makes sense because other OEMs (read: Samsung) have begun to wage open war on the Google part of the Android ecosystem. By creating their own mail, translation, voice assistant, browser, etc, Samsung is showing that you can have Android without Google Apps. Of course, this is no lesson that Amazon hasn’t been teaching for years. With Amazon releasing their Google apps alternatives and Samsung releasing theirs as well, it only makes sense that they take what makes their variant of Android special, putting it closer to the vest, and closing the source so they can make faster, bigger, and better changes.

To put it absurdly, even the Nexus has an OEM skin. As many Google engineers have said, when you’re running a Nexus, you are not running stock Android, you’re running Google’s version of Android. It’s no different than Touchwiz, HTC Sense, MIUI, and others. True blue Android wouldn’t have any Google software included. Imagine flashing CyanogenMod without flashing GApps. That’s what stock Android actually looks like.

So here’s how I see it. Google is keeping their proprietary apps closer to the vest so they can better compete with Samsung and Amazon, who are doing essentially the same thing with their Android experience apps. At the end of the day, it’s 3 giant companies competing for our love. That bodes well for us, the consumer, because all 3 are trying to make their experience better. That means all 3 experiences get better and we get better experiences.

Including Google Apps in with Android is, well, wrong. They are two different things. Android is Android. The Play Store, Gmail, Google Now, etc, is not Android, it’s Google. So Google keeping Google’s apps closed source makes sense, especially since Android itself remains as open as ever!

Andrew Grush

Google isn’t a charity. Android needs to be a profitable endeavor, or else it doesn’t matter to the Google that Android is the leading mobile OS.

For Google, that means one of its top priorities is getting folks addicted to its first party apps and services. Of equal importance is Google’s ability to keep its manufacturing partners loyal to Google’s vision for Android.

Google accomplishes the former by making sure its services are the very best, and the latter by imposing manufacturer restrictions on the use of its first party apps and forbidding its partners from using unauthorized forks of Android.

So yes, Google controls the direction of Android through the Open Handset Alliance and by leading the platform with killer apps. Is that the same as having absolute control over the platform? No, it’s not.

Google is a business and puts its own agenda at the forefront, but it has done very little to stifle the overall spirit of Android’s open platform.
For those that have ever used Windows Phone, Blackberry or iOS – you already know how these companies do there best to place limits on what developers and consumers can and can’t do. Third-party apps stores? Good luck with that, unless you want to jailbreak your device, it isn’t happening.In contrast, Android not only allows third party app stores, launchers, lockscreens and more – Google even allows these kinds of apps onto its official Play Store. In fact, Google allows just about anything to come to the Play Store, even if its relatively similar to an existing Google service.

Sure there have been some exceptions, but for the most part Google is very open with its store front.

In contrast, Apple does whatever it can to prevent anything that’s similar to its first party services from making it to the app store. The same goes for Windows Phone and even Blackberry OS, though to a lesser extent than Apple.

Do I feel that Google is working to create an iron grip over Android? Not necessarily, though it’s something to watch out for. I love the fact that Android gives me freedom to make my Android device whatever I want it to be, and if that ever changed, I’d certainly have something to say about it.

For now, I believe there is little to fear but I will admit that could change in time.

Adam Koueider

If anyone is even contemplating the thought that Android is going to become closed source, they shouldn’t. One of the stipulations that the Chinese government attached to Google’s purchase of Motorola was that Android would remain open and free for at least the next 5 years. That means that you won’t have to worry about that scenario for at least another 4 years.

Now let’s start answering the questions raised. Is Google working to gain more control over Android? Yes. Is that good or bad for consumers? It’s a great thing for consumers. The fact is that control and order are good things to have, to a certain extent. You can’t have one pie being pulled in 14 completely different directions, because all you’re going to end up with is a bit of pie on everybody’s faces.

The fact that Google is muscling everybody into a general direction for Android is great for consumers simply because we have an overall idea of where the platform is headed. This means that developers have an idea as to the way their apps should look and function to keep a sustainable app ecosystem, and so that people have a general idea of what to expect when they pick up an Android phone.

Sure Google’s taking Android in a general direction, but that doesn’t mean OEMs aren’t slightly deviating from the Google plan. OEMs still offer MicroSD slots despite Google’s disdain for them, and they still offer physical buttons. We aren’t losing any freedom or choice by Google gaining more control over Android, and the developer community is probably at (or nearing) its peak with the recent Cyanogen Inc. and Paranoid Android announcements.

How should OEMs react? Well they’ve been reacting since the very beginning. OEMs realise that if they want to prosper they need to have a reasonably good relationship with Google. HTC was the first to develop its relationship with Google and even though Samsung has appeared to have loosened its ties with Google it still has made the most Nexus devices and it even created a Google Play Edition variant of the Galaxy S4.

Samsung has also taken appropriate steps to distance itself from Google as well. Nobody wants to be fully dependant on another company to dictate how they’re going to move forward and Samsung, being such a behemoth in supply line management, has started building its own app ecosystem much to the disdain of some.

Am I worried that Android has become less open compared to two years ago? No, because Android has also become a much more mature and developed operating system in those two years as well, and the fact that Google has taken more control of Android has definitely been a factor in this trend. Now all I ask of Google is to stop those fake apps on the Play Store feeding off of the popularity of games and apps like BBM and Dead Trigger 2.

What do YOU think?

Join us in the comments and vote in our poll.

Is Google's increasing control over Android good for users?

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Comments

  • abh1n4v

    All apps which use Google APIs are going to be compatible with almost every “Google approved” android device.This is One serious Advantage provided to developers and in a way answering the fragmentation problem.

    • adam evans

      They start solving the fragmentation problem and helping everyone , and then people say taking control and sorting it out is bad now.
      Haters gunna hate

      • Brian Shieh

        While it won’t entirely solve fragmentation, I do agree on the point of helping everybody. Sure, you may not get the newest OS, but at least you can get the keyboard of it.

    • NeedName

      And Google said they were going to do this well over a year ago — break off as much of Android as possible and make those parts separate and downloadable through the gPlay store so users aren’t as screwed by the lack of updates due to OEMs & carriers.

      . . .

      Let’s all face it, there are the haters out there that will always bash competing platforms/devices. . . and the whole “open source” junk is just one way they take a cheap shot at Android. Someone give me a better option and I’ll take it, till then they need to put up or shut up.

  • Alu Zeros

    And thats why they just need to make a new layer for themes where you can switch them out from Google or third party.

  • Toni

    Time to take that decison, NOW… Because another fucking company like Samsung and Amazon take profit of Google’s work. Does Samsung hates Android? Make your own OS, take your way and let us Android users be completely satisfied…
    Yes, please, Google: take the control. Best take Google control that another…

    • patrik

      Relax, will you? What makes you think everyone enjoys it the nexus way? I’d say nexus-lovers are a minority, especially outside of the US. A nexus doesn’t cost much less than a brand new galaxy/one/z1 etc. here in Sweden, and I’m sure it’s the same in alot of other countries.

      If it wasn’t for samsung I don’t think I’d like Android as much. Sure I’d never use another OS because I need the system I use to be open. I don’t think I use a single “stock” app on my note 3. Swiftkey, Exdialer, quickpic, Camera JB+, ES File explorer etc. etc. I like touchwiz with all its useful features like multiwindow..

      Just don’t talk shit acting as if you know what everyone else thinks.

      • Boonlumsion Piyapon

        I think Google “NEED” to control some part of Android.

        As long as samsung, amazon, blackberry, baidu as well as tizen. Try to make advantage over Android’s Openness.

      • Toni

        Relax?

        How ignorant looks you, friend…

        If you enjoy your fucking Samsuck (bloat and bloat with shit) is thanks to the core inside, powered by Google.
        If Samsung doesn’t exists (I wish), some other brand will be the #1 best seller (as HTC did), with ANDROID INSIDE. What Samsuck is doing is breaking Android, as they don’t mind at all. Just want to sell, sell, sell. If one day Google get pissed and thinks “I’ve enough of that war” , we all go to hell…
        Then, what OS would you use… Tizen?
        C’mon boy, you are so blind, as a iSheep by crApple…
        I Recently buy a 250€ Nexus 4 in Spain (not S4 600 €…);
        I had a Galaxy Nexus, and I have a Nexus 7 too.
        THANKS TO GOOGLE AND NEXUS, PROBLEMS ARE GONE.
        All works as it should.
        So yes, Google, please take control…

        • jz100

          Your just an idiot Samsung hater.

  • Srinivas Rajkumar

    Google are taking care of their own apps and at the same time not forcing oems to use only google apps, as mentioned above samsung and amazon are examples.

    Android is still open source and oems and developers can so what ever they want with it.

    • Cerberus_tm

      Amazon may not need Google’s applications, but Google *is* forcing Samsung to install all their applications. What’s key here is that Samsung is not allowed to pre-install Gmail but not Google Plus; nor pre-install Youtube but not the Android keyboard, etc. That way, Google is pushing everyone into “all or nothing”, de facto using their monopoly to prevent Samsung and others from pre-installing some alternative applications.

      Don’t get me wrong, Samsung’s applications kind of suck. But, as a consumer, I’d like to be able to choose.

      • Srinivas Rajkumar

        Google need those apps in android but the oems are free to make an alternative. So far I haven’t seen Google say guys you have to use only our apps and nothing else.

        • Cerberus_tm

          From Ron Amadeo’s article:

          “Another point of control is that the Google apps are all licensed as a single bundle. So if you want Gmail and Maps, you also need to take Google Play Services, Google+, and whatever else Google feels like adding to the package. A company called Skyhook found this out the hard way when it tried to develop a competing location service for Android. Switching to Skyhook’s service meant Google would not be able to collect location data from users. This was bad for Google, so Skyhook was declared “incompatible.” OEMs that wanted the Google Apps were not allowed to use them. Skyhook sued, and the lawsuit is still pending.”
          http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/10/googles-iron-grip-on-android-controlling-open-source-by-any-means-necessary/3/

          • Srinivas Rajkumar

            Dude skyhook was butting to Google business. They had the choice to make it android compatible but they didn’t.
            They have two options use forked version of Android or merge themselves with mapping services.

  • Christopher Sass

    Amazon doesn’t seem to be having an issue. If you want the Google play services, than you play by Google’s rules. Can’t just expect to leach off of Google’s stuff free of limits and then have your cake too

  • http://myanimelist.net/profile/xSubZero SubZero

    Google needs to some sort of quality standard on entry level phones. Some companies just slap on android to their garbage entry level phone which ends up giving android a bad reputation.

    • Cao Meo

      It’s against Google model which is responsible for 80% and still growing market share for Android.

      Google obviously have to accept tradeoff in any situation, and it’s works well so why change?

      • Mozaik

        This tradeoff may lead to windows like situation in future . Google has to do something about this situation , it will not take time where people start cursing android due to shitty hardware from some other oem slapped with android just like windows is now today.

        • Cao Meo

          Google promised to address the problem with better smoother OS, hopefully it’s KK.

          But they will not force OEMs to do anything as it’s OEM must try to sell their products, not Google.

          I think Android is fundamentally different from Windows by being open source, and if Google can’t do a good job others will take over.

  • wat

    How could China have imposed conditions on Google’s purchase of Motorola? I thought Motorola was an American company….

    • NeedName

      Internation ;)

      Motorola, at least they used to, sells a lot of phones in China.

    • Cao Meo

      If Google and Motorola will never sells anything in China then they can ignore the Chinese Govt.

      In fact both Google and Motorola have very little business in China now but the probably will return some day.

  • Balraj

    I strongly believe Google wants to replace “internet” with “Google”

    • Cao Meo

      I’m against if Google uses same anti-competition tactics like MS and Apple.

      But if Google can do it with innovation then why not?

  • Cao Meo

    So far Google’s cntrol of Android is win-win-win for consumers, OEMs and Google. The losers are MS, Apple and ad-dependant media companies.

    The innovation is strong, Android keeps growing and better everyday.

  • Ruz

    they are not competing for our love.. but Money

  • mcilloni

    More Google control is absolutely needed. Samsung can fork android any day and destroy the whole ecosystem just to cut off competition. Google control will prevent a too big OEM to use android against the other OEMS destroying all the work Google has done

  • nishantsirohi123

    About time this happens. That’s the only way android can be saved from being a cluttered mess that it nearly was when Ice cream sandwich was launched
    Thankfully jelly beans itself improved this scenario. Already device makers are able to provide and add features
    And make visually distinct user interface

  • Ares

    I don’t see the relationship between closing the source and making “faster, bigger, and better changes”.

    • NeedName

      Google can update those “closed sourced” apps faster without requiring a whole OS upgrade. The OS source code is not and will not be closed.

      • Ares

        That’s just because those apps are no longer part of android. But that has nothing to be closed source. They could be on the play store and be open source.

        • Cao Meo

          Some1 gives his backyard to be free playground does not mean he is bad when he still keeps his house for himself.

          Bill Gates is doing a good job for Africa, but he still keeps most of his fortune.

          You should not measure Google against some ideal, but against leading companies like MS and Apple. Then you will see Google is an angel :)

  • leo98918

    I don’t see what the problem is… Google took some of their Stock Apps that are built into Android and their Nexus devices and made them into seperate apps that are downloadable via the Google Play Store… You all know that downloading apps is OPTIONAL right? If you don’t want the default Android Keyboard, what should you do? DON’T DOWNLOAD IT! Simple as that!
    All Google is doing is making sure that those that DO want a Nexus Experience on their Samsung, HTC, LG or other brand phone, are able to have that. Its not like they are pushing it onto you. They did this because Manufacturers don’t update their devices as fast as Google does on their Nexus devices. If I download Google’s Android Keyboard on my Samsung, I want to make sure it gets the same exact fixes or updates that their Nexus line is recieving.
    Everything that Google is releasing is OPTIONAL.

  • GasparIPerez

    Google can do whatever they want, as long as they release the Nexus 5 soon. Enough of BS, release the beast!!

  • spacemonkey82

    i think this whole google vs samsung rivalry is manufactured by the media. android, at the end of the day, is a partnership.

    although google directs and develops most of the code base, samsung is the second largest contributor. and without samsung marketing and selling 100s of millions of devices we wouldn’t even be talking about android.

    the success of android has a lot to decentralized control envisioned by google and its OHA initiative.

  • Tanner Hoyt

    If Google was just keeping control over things such as Maps, YouTube, Gmail, etc, I would be fine with it. But they are beginning to take over almost all aspects of the OS. In the end, Android will no longer represent “freedom”. It will represent a bunch of companies making Google-authorized phones in which some phones allow you to take off the back cover. A removable back will be the definition of “freedom” on smartphones in the future.

    The hypocrisy of some people amazes me. So, Apple is terrible for having too much control over iOS and OSX, and people criticize them for it. Then, when it comes to Google taking control over Android, people cheer them on? Seriously? Stop having a double standard. If you’re going to criticize one company for doing something, you should criticize them all for doing it.

    • AbbyZFresh

      At least Google pays attention to the quality of their software and hardware unlike the other Android OEMs. I don’t mind if Google takes over more of Android as long as i still get to keep the widgets and customize the OS within my own means. It’s their OS they created while everyone else just uses the code for it. Google is free to do what they want.

  • Cerberus_tm

    None of the writers seem to address Amadeo’s main points:

    1.) It may be good for everyone that Google is releasing its applications (like the keyboard) as separate applications downloadable in their shop; but why make them closed source? There is absolutely no need for that other than to restrict what users and developers can do.

    2.) When Google takes the keyboard to their shop, that in itself doesn’t harm Android; but what does harm Android is that they stop improving the default Android keyboard. It will become hopelessly outdated eventually. And this will happen to all of the Android applications, so that Android will become somewhat useless without Google’s applications, forcing everyone to install the Google applications.

    All of this means more control for Google and fewer options for users and other parties. Not saying it’s all for the worse, but this is a problem that needs to be seriously considered.

    • AbbyZFresh

      Is it a real problem though? The question is, who actually goes to Android and not use the Google apps? I can wait.

      And don’t say Kindle Fire nor Chinese OEM users either.

      • Cerberus_tm

        That is exactly the problem: because Google no longer improves Android’s default applications, they lag behind, and we are pushed into Google’s applications. Had they built e.g. Maps and the location framework into Android, kept it open source, and let you download the map data and save them permanently, we would all be using Android Maps and the Android locations service.

        (Maps and the location service are the only Google application I really couldn’t live without at the moment. And perhaps access to the Play Store. I also use Gmail, but frankly the default e-mail applications works OK, and I don’t really need the extra options in Gmail. I don’t often use any other Google applications on my phone.)

  • King of Cornwall

    The “Evil Empire” made it so that you couldn’t have Windows without having their Browser, Media Player, etc thrown in. Now Google want it so that you can’t have a usable Android without having all their proprietry apps bundled in. Where’s the difference? Google is simply employing the tried and tested MS tactic of Embrace, Extend and Eliminate.

    • Srinivas Rajkumar

      You do know they allow third party apps also.

  • MC Wong

    As long as it remains free and leave everything else alone. They have a right to develop & control closed source proprietary apps bundled free with the OS. They must strike a balance between open and closed apps to improve quality and user experience.

    • adam evans

      agreed , all these spin offs will be confusing and bad for and users. incompatible distributions and missing API’s will be a nightmare for the end user. Some one has to take control and its better being google than samsung

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