Leaked OEM licensing terms reveal Google’s strict level of control over its apps

by: Andrew GrushFebruary 13, 2014

Google logo aa

Part of the magic behind Android is that it is open-source, meaning anyone can grab the OS and run with it, as we’ve seen with customized Android forks like Amazon’s Fire OS. There is no denying that Android is truly open and free at its heart, but critics attest that Android “as we know it” might not be so open or free in reality.

In order to qualify for Google Play certification, OEMs have to go through several hoops and need navigate a list of “do’s and dont’s” if they want to be approved. Without Play certification, a device can’t have Google Maps, the Play Store or any of the great apps that we generally associate with Android — which basically makes the device useless for most major markets.

In order to qualify for Google Play certification, OEMs have to go through several hoops and need navigate a list of “do’s and dont’s” if they want to be approved.

So how extensive are these lists of rules, and what is involved exactly? The process for certification is a fairly secretive one, but thanks to a newly leaked details from a document called the Mobile Application Distribution Agreement (MADA), we now get a closer look at exactly what goes on behind closed doors.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard or seen information related to MADA, but the last time was from a 2009 version of the agreement, dating back to the days of Android 1.1. The latest leaked agreement is from 2011, giving us a much more more modern look, though we imagine there have been several changes since then.

Google apps: an all or nothing affair

First, the document highlights that Google Play certification is an all or nothing affair. In other words, if you really want just Google Play on your handset, too bad. In order to get the Play Store, an OEM has to agree to install all the other ‘required’ Google apps including Google Voice Search, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk (now Hangouts), Google Maps and so on.

There are some optional apps like Google Earth and News & Weather, but Google makes it pretty clear that an OEM must include all of its core services if they want to be approved.

Google Play certification is an all or nothing affair

In addition to specifically listing what apps an OEM must include, Google’s agreement also dictates that the files are installed “no more than one level below the Phone Top”, meaning a place like the App Drawer.

The terms also require that OEMs include the Google Phone-top search bar and Android Market Client (Google Play) icon at least on the panel adjacent to the default home screen. Google search needs to be set as the default search engine, and Google’s Network Location Provider must be the default.

Monthly sales reports

The MADA doesn’t just dictate what you need to do to get approved as an OEM, it also requires you to agree to send monthly sales data for the device once it ships. The sales data is broken down by regions and basically lets Google keep track of how many of each device is sold, and in what region.

Google also states that any and all profits generated from Google services go to Google. This includes ads, Play Store revenue and so forth.

Google Play

Approval process

So provided you follow all the above guidelines, are you approved? If you make it through Google’s OEM testing process, sure. According to the MADA document, this means an OEM has to hand over four devices per model so Google can ensure you are completely following their guidelines. Google will even check to make sure that the Android software isn’t massively modified, as Android forks (such as Fire OS) are forbidden from certification.

Once an OEM is certified, the licensing agreement is good for two years. Additionally, all future updates from an OEM have to meet the MADA guidelines and are subject to Google’s approval. After two years, the agreement will need to be renegotiated if an OEM wants to continue selling the Google-approved device.

So is Android really all that open?

Critics of Google’s policies and strategies use this document and other Google policies to suggest that Google banks on a false perception that Android is free and open. They say that Google has such tight reigns that OEMs aren’t given any real freedom, and that this control ultimately negates the benefits of being an open-source OS.

Is there any truth to this? It really depends on how you look at the situation. If an OEM wants to have all of Google’s services, yes, they have to follow some pretty strict policies to get them. It’s also true that without Google Play services, it’s pretty hard to be a success, unless your company’s name happens to be Amazon.

OEMs can still slap on their own stores and skins in addition to what comes with the Google-certified Android experience. Try any of that with Windows Phone or iOS.

Then again, OEMs can still slap on their own stores and skins in addition to what comes with the Google-certified Android experience. They can still add S Health, S Voice and other custom apps to the package. Consumers can also buy these handsets and customize them with launchers, 3rd party marketplaces and the list goes on. You can even make a Magazine UI that departments from the standard Android look, even if Google doesn’t necessarily like it.

Try just about any of that with Windows Phone or iOS. Just as we thought: it isn’t going to happen.

If we are being honest, it’s clear that Google does exhibit a pretty strong level of control over its own apps. Then again, they have a business to run and we can’t necessarily blame them for trying to control their own ecosystem. Thankfully, beneath the controls over its own apps and what devices they run on, Android is still reasonably flexible, and certainly more so than the competition’s offerings.

What do you think, is Google trying too hard to control Android, or that they are banking on the idea of being “open-source” to gain popularity among open-source fans? Conversely, do you feel that these protections are necessary to ensure a non-fragmented, enjoyable Android experience? Let us know your thoughts on the matter in the comments below!

  • Kevin

    Android is not open source. Google controls everything. That’s why I am switching to ios, an better platform. It dose not get any bloat ware. And android can become slow at times, so by. Here iPhone 5s I come!!! Like I just want play store not some google apps I don’t use.

    • AfrodanJ

      That’s the lamest excuse to jump ship. If you want an iPhone get an iPhone, no need to make up reasons to justify it, we wont judge you…….oh, and good luck with that no bloat ware and open source that the iPhone gives you…………ok I lied, I’m judging you

    • Matej Čurilla

      sigh… this again. Android is open-source. There are different kind of open-source software and licences, and Android fits into one of them. What Google controls is the ecosystem for Android. FireOS from Amazon is pretty much a proof of Android being open source, because they took it, put their own services on top, but it still runs any android app [that does not use Google services].

    • Phil Rigby

      ANDROID – the OPERATING SYSTEM – is open source. Any one can get the source code, modify it, submit patches, etc. There are certain “top secret” pieces of code the non-Google employee can’t get to, but the OS as a whole is open source (by the true definition).

      Yes, Google are entitled to make OEM’s use GMail, Maps, Voice, etc – it’s their investment, they want payback on it.

      You can skin Android to death (literally). You can change fonts, icon packs, screen layouts, no restrictions pretty much on what you can or can’t install (not always a good thing).

      iOS won’t even let you put a weather widget on the home screen. Go ahead, try to install an icon pack. Flash on iOS, anyone?

      When I buy a phone, I want to do whatever I want to do with it. I don’t want the ideals of a guy who died 2 years ago to dictate what I can load or how I can even friggin’ layout the homescreens of MY phone.

      • Micro Shaquer

        People towards iOS.


    If u think android is not open anymore just get a china phone or flash a ROM, no one is forcing you to install playstore, you can have android as it is, but u’ll need to load apks manually, google has the rights to ask OEMs for something is return to letting them include the App store they created. lol

    • Guest123

      “flash a ROM”. . . funny stuff.

      1. the odds are slim there is a ROM for ___ device.
      2. if there is a ROM for said device, it most likely will have major bugs, like dropping wifi, no call audio, etc.
      3. most will brick their devices before they even get a ROM on their device because recovery apps are generally crap and phone specific.

      You want to flash a ROM? You had better buy the right phone!

      • Bogdacutu

        Remind me please, how is that Google’s fault?

      • MRACHINI

        well i did say get a China phone “OR” Flash a Rom, i didn’t say get a china phone “AND” flash a rom. so it goes without saying “for someone to be able to flash a rom” they should have what they think the best device for that.

  • rmkilc

    Android is open source. Google’s proprietary layer is not. It’s that simple. Don’t confuse the two.

    • Shark Bait

      Very True, and that’s not a problem. some bloggers seem to thing Google should open source their search algorithms because android is open source. It is Nothing new for a company to protect their cash cow a from being ripped off, what do they expect.

      • Matevz

        True that. While Google keeps its Android as open source as (reasonable) it can get, it is sad to see OEMs locking us down more than Google has ever had. When Motorola was under Google they made MotoX developer edition with unlocked bootloader. That made me really happy, like a little kid getting free candy. I was hoping other OEMs would follow the example, making developer edition phones with unlocked bootloader. That would be really nice, that would make me really happy. That concerns me, not preinstalled google apps and what search engine is set as default…. those are problems OEMs must eat, not mine..

    • Javier Peralta

      Its not truly open source. As far as I know you can’t contribute to it as in real open source projects, can you?

      • Shark Bait

        You can, that’s what the android open source project (AOSP) is all about

        • Javier Peralta

          Justo checked. I was wrong. Thanks for clarifying.

    • Lancer

      Writer forgot to mention about locking-in manufacturers.

      Basically, Google Android OEMs are prohibited from cooperating with any non-Google Android fork. Or in Google term, OEMs are forbidden from taking “any actions that may cause or result in the fragmentation of Android”.
      So if company like Oppo sign deal with Amazon to manufacture device with Fire OS (android fork), Oppo will instantly lose rights to Google Play certification, even though they only provide the hardware.

      Though ‘android fork’ definition is up to Google. Example is CyanogenMod, an android fork, they still pass Google Play certification with Oppo.

    • Tanner Hoyt

      True. But what do you do when the Nexus 5 is almost entirely closed source? The homescreen itself IS Google Search. You can try and justify it, explain, or overall rationalize it however you want, but the fact is Google is controlling. They use “open” as a selling point. The same way they used patriotism as a selling point for the Moto X and look where that ended up not even six months later.

      We love Android, but we can not be blind to Google’s obvious controlling nature. “Don’t be evil” is becoming harder and harder to follow it seems.

    • Guest123

      The problem is, we need a good open alternative to the google play store, and that isn’t happening. And now that Samsung and google have kissed and made nice we won’t see any competition there.

  • Duh. Anyone notice how Droid fans always stick to the supplied interface and stock apps. Not.

    • rmkilc

      Not too many Droid fans left. With Motorola being shifted around, and Droid being a Verizon brand, I see the Droid brand fading. I never did like Verizon’s “Droid” branding campaign. Selling similar devices on all carriers is working much better (GS4, HTC ONE).

  • mikegonzalez2k

    I look at this as Google’s way of keeping OEM’s in check. Otherwise consumers would have a much worse time with all the differences in fragmentation. This way there is at least a core to build from. A solid foundation is important.

  • Doan

    “Google also states that any and all profits generated from Google services go to Google. This includes ads, Play Store revenue and so forth.”

    You mean reports, right?

  • Emmanuel

    An article that yet again confuses android’s open source nature and Google’s proprietary services… Smh….

    Core android OS = very very very open source, the source is there help yourselves

    Google Play, Google Calendar, Gmail, Play Movies, Play Music etc. = proprietary, and that has been the case for quite some time….

    Don’t confuse android and Google services, they are separate entities…

    • number29

      The problem is, both of those things are called ‘Android’.

      • Emmanuel

        I have an iPad and I use Google Play Music, Google Maps, Gmail and Google Drive on it… So does that mean I have android on my iPad? No.

        • number29

          That doesn’t even make any sense, but no, why would it?

          • Emmanuel

            Exactly, it doesn’t make sense because as I said Google services IS NOT android… They are two different things.

          • number29

            Passing the Android approval process allows manufacturers to say their devices run Android. Amazon can’t say their Kindle Fire devices run Android for instance, because it hasn’t been approved by Google, even though they are all running Android.

          • Emmanuel

            “even though they are all running Android” oh the irony, that’s again the point of my initial comment, android core OS is open source you get the source, modify it, fork the hell out of it as you want that’s the beauty of android BECAUSE ANDROID IS OPEN SOURCE, you may not be able to get Google Play certification but that DOES NOT remove the fact that it is in fact ANDROID.

            Blackberry runs an android layer over BB OS so that it can run android apps…. Again, it’s android but not Google Play certified so no Google Services for it.

          • number29

            It’s Android, but it’s also not Android because you can’t call it Android unless it’s been Google approved. Any device called ‘Android’ is not an open source device. Only devices not called Android can possibly be completely open source.

          • Emmanuel

            Open source device? Lol, you have no idea what open source is, do you? Open Source refers to software not hardware of course there is no “open source device”

          • number29

            There is no Android device that runs entirely open source software out of the box. All Android devices have closed source elements.

          • Emmanuel

            Yes, you know why? Because those “elements” once again IS NOT ANDROID just like Google Services. Get a nexus device, remove all google services…. That’s android…. and that is open source.

            The problem is, you are equating all of these NON-ANDROID layers as android itself.

            For example:

            Samsung apps
            Samsung Features
            Samsung touchwiz
            Google Services

            These are all proprietary layers running ON TOP OF ANDROID but these are not android at all, these are just layers on top of an open source platform called android.

          • number29

            Those layers are Android, as they are the layers you need to be able to call your device an ‘Android’ device. Without them, you cannot say your device runs Android.

          • Emmanuel

            Uh, no…. Whatever device you have right now, please install CYANOGENMOD without flashing GAPPS so you’ll have a slight idea what android actually is….

          • number29

            But in Google’s eyes that is no longer an Android device.

          • Emmanuel

            It still is, that’s why it’s called AOSP

          • number29

            Not as far as Google are concerned though.

          • Peter

            Emmanual, you might as well stop the fight. Number29 simply doesn’t get it, and it appears that he/she never will.

          • number29

            There’s no fight, I’m just trying to correct people who don’t understand. There’s nothing for me to ‘get’; I already do!

          • Peter

            No, actually, you don’t. For example, ALL Nexus devices are called what? GOOGLE PHONES! They are not called ANDROID PHONES, but Google phones. The one point that Emmanual said about putting CyanogenMod on a device and not installing GAPPS, is absolutely true. It’s an ANDROID PHONE, but not a GOOGLE PHONE. There’s a distinct difference.

            On that point, I’m out of this thread. It’s hard to have a debate with someone who simply doesn’t get it.

          • number29

            No, sorry, but you are both wrong. Only Google certified devices can be called Android devices. The Nexus 5 is an Android device because it’s been certified by Google. The Kindle Fire is not an Android device because it hasn’t been certified by Google. Please, I strongly suggest you read and understand this before continuing to post.

          • Emmanuel

            If this is not enough I don’t know what is… Also if that’s not enough go to source.android.com/faqs.html

          • number29

            Why not read the content of this article?

          • Emmanuel

            Read it, all the answers to your ignorance is there.

          • Emmanuel

            If you’re to lazy to read, here it is

            Quote: “The Google apps for Android, such as Youtube, Google Maps and Navigation, Gmail, and so on are Google properties that are not part of Android, and are licensed separately.”

          • number29

            I understand why you’re confused now; AOSP and Android are two different things. One is an open source operating system, the other is a name and branding that’s applied to Google certified devices. I suggest you look under the ‘Is compatability mandatory?’ section. It very clearly states that ‘if a manufacturer wishes to use the Android name with their product, or wants access to Google Play, they must first demonstrate that the device is compatible’.

          • Emmanuel

            So? Does that prove my very first comment wrong? android compatibility is simply a certification that a device can run third party apps… AOSP is already android in itself regardless of branding and Google Services is not android. Google Services is a layer of proprietary services.

            Read the first paragraph on this page developer.android.com/google/index.html

          • number29

            What you’re referring to is AOSP, which is an operating system. That’s not what this article of any of these comments are about.

          • Emmanuel

            This entire conversation started with this (see attached photo) … Not with the article.

          • Emmanuel

            The entire conversation started because of this (see photo) not the article

          • Emmanuel

            Exactly, it doesn’t make sense because as I said Google services IS NOT android… They are two different things.

  • Raaj

    You can even make a Magazine UI that “departments” from the standard Android look, even if Google doesn’t necessarily like it.

    Grammar police— Mooooo!!! :-P

  • Micro Shaquer

    People towards iOS. So true.

  • KB

    I don’t think android would be this successful if Google had not forced at least a certain level of standards to the service. My opinion, they could loosen the requirements on the core Google experience required now that android is soo successful. This would help push android into emerging markets where all of Google services may not be available. And expand the variation in smartphone software in saturated regions where the hardware war is being slowed and user experience is becoming a bigger selling point.

  • Replicant Jason Booth

    Definitely an eye opening article.its understandable that they would exert some level of control over their creation.

    • Culiacanazo

      I know this is old, but let me tell you, Google did not create Android, it was created by Andy Rubin (makes you wonder where the name came from) who by the way now works at Google. And don’t try to give me any of that “I meant the GMS stuff…” because unless you’re seriously “challenged”, you didn’t! Because your comment clearly states “eye opening ARTICLE… …control over their CREATION.”… Check the ARTICLE’s closing paragraph: “What do you think, is Google trying too hard to control Android…?” Thank you very much. I like being an “eye opener”.

      • Replicant Jason Booth

        Wow talk about later lol Thanks for taking the time. Well he sold the rights to Google so ultimately while Google didn’t create it…they own it.

  • Of course Android is open source, but taking the way of forking it without GSM is so discouraging for any OEM. Plus, this is a real disadvantage to be on android without Google services.

    well played google… well played…

  • shizai