But his biggest point, which he made at the beginning of his piece, is that Android provides choice — that “there are more than 24,000 devices, at every price point, from more than 1,300 different brands.” So technically you can choose from thousands of different Android phones.
Here’s the thing, though: manufacturers don’t have all that much choice. Of all the viable mobile platforms available today, Android and iOS are the only ones with enough users to even be a consideration. But Apple is the only company that can make iOS devices, so hardware makers are really only left with Android. Now, of course, under the Android umbrella, they can choose from the regular flavor or the lightweight Go version. That’s great, but it’s still a Google game. Manufacturers have to meet certain technical requirements (admittedly for a better overall user experience in general) and play by Google’s rules. That means installing the apps Google suggests, just to keep it happy.
When a phone already comes installed with browser, messaging, email and other apps from Google, bundling competing options just adds to software bloat, which turns most users off. Not only is there no incentive to create better alternatives, then, but there’s compelling reason for manufacturers to not create their own apps. Also, people are lazy — they likely won’t go to the trouble of installing a new browser and setting it as their default. So, if what the Commission contends is true, and Google is making pre-installing Chrome and Search prerequisites for access to the Play Store, then it is stifling competition.
That’s not just limiting for phone makers, but could lead to fewer meaningful choices for consumers as well. Every Android phone is more or less the same — a Galaxy S9 is a nicer LG G7 ThinQ with better cameras minus the AI photographer, for example. Companies fighting to differentiate in hardware is why we end up with iterative performance upgrades every year, or features like more cameras with more megapixels. Some of these can be truly innovative, like in-screen fingerprint readers. But for the most part, we’re getting things like motorized pop-up selfie cameras, stronger-than-usual haptic motors or two-tone gradient finishes.
Even just within the realm of competing Android skins, we’ve seen the benefits of an abundance of choice. Developers have come up with useful features like Night mode and lock-screen shortcuts that have now become baked into the major operating systems. What if software makers were encouraged to develop their own OSes — what changes could they come up with?
Nowhere do we see this stagnation more clearly than with Wear OS watches. Sure, there may be dozens of variants available from brands like Huawei, LG, Fossil, Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Casio and a ton more. But each of these smartwatches is basically the same skeleton. Imagine trying to pick a new teammate from an offering of clones of the same person wearing different clothes. Some of them have better features, like built-in GPS, longer lasting batteries and brighter displays, but ultimately they do the same things.
Don’t get me wrong, Google has done a lot of good for app developers and consumers. Android is a fine operating system (good riddance to Symbian) and has helped deliver strong competition for Apple. And to Google’s point, which it illustrated with a hilarious step-by-step GIF complete with timer, uninstalling a preloaded app is quite easy and takes about 10 seconds (if you’re slow).
Android has also freed up Google’s partners so they can innovate on hardware, which admittedly gives us a variety of options from the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy line to the OnePlus phones or even the BlackBerry KeyTwo. That range of choices allows the market to cater for a wide-ranging set of users. But while Android has fostered healthy handset competition, it may have stifled the same for software. Google already has Microsoft as an example to look to — the Windows maker avoided hefty fines by complying with the EU and letting users pick third-party default browsers more easily. Of course, it’s ridiculous that Apple gets away with pre-installing Safari (among other things) because, as the Commission argues, it is “exclusively used by vertically integrated developers,” while Microsoft and Google are punished for working with hardware partners.
But the point is that Google does work with many other manufacturers, who shouldn’t be forced into pre-installation decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make. They should have the choice to bundle Chrome if they want, without being threatened with losing access to app stores. There should also be a level playing field for people who want to make competing apps. Google should be more concerned with making the best available product that users would install when their phones don’t already come with one. Ultimately, by arguing that it has fostered healthy handset diversity, Google is not only nitpicking, but also neglecting the control it has over mobile platforms.