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

February 13, 2014
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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!

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