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Europe's War on Google Could Ruin Android (Op-Ed)

What European bureaucrats may fear. Credit for map: San Jose/Creative Commons

What European bureaucrats may fear. Credit for map: San Jose/Creative Commons

A Bing search bar on your Android home screen? Yahoo Maps replacing Google Maps? Microsoft Outlook instead of Gmail?

All of those things could happen if the European Commission has its way. And the changes could be more than cosmetic — Google could lose control of the entire Android platform, resulting in greater fragmentation and a rollback of the operating system's significant security gains.

The Commission, the executive body of the European Union, yesterday (April 15) opened an official antitrust investigation into Google's confidential agreements with Android handset makers. The probe began even as the Commission formally accused Google of abusing its search-engine dominance to gain a competitive advantage in other fields.

If the Commission decides that Google has been similarly abusive regarding Android, it could force Google to make drastic changes in how the Android OS is installed and configured on handsets, just as, years ago, it forced Microsoft to limit the preinstallation of Internet Explorer on Windows PCs. It would be bitter irony if the world's leading mobile OS was made worse by the decisions of bureaucrats in Brussels.

The European Commission decided to investigate the matter after other companies, led by Microsoft, accused Google of anticompetitive behavior. The Commission plans to follow three lines of investigation into the agreements between Google and handset makers. Each line of inquiry has merit, but the case for anticompetitive behavior is far from solid.

Include Google apps or else

First, the Commission aims to find "whether Google has illegally hindered the development and market access of rival mobile applications or services by requiring or incentivizing smartphone and tablet manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google's own applications or service."

Handset makers must follow stipulations to have a device branded as "Google Android" or "Google certified" instead of just regular Android. Generally, manufacturers first must submit their Android builds to Google so Google can review them for compatibility, and then include at least some Google-branded apps — such as Gmail, Chrome, Maps, YouTube and Play, a bundle also known as Google Mobile Services — when the devices ship.

All forms of Android, whether authorized by Google or not, are based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). It's wholly open-source software that is loosely guided by Google, and can be freely modified by anyone — no strings attached.

Many Android device makers choose not to sign up with Google and instead use AOSP or "forked" builds based on AOSP that can differ markedly from Google's. With its Fire line of mobile devices, Amazon is the most prominent U.S. company to do this; because Google limits its own Chinese operations, many Chinese device makers do as well.

Like Android, few of these companies install the Google Play app store, forcing users to shop from "off-road" app markets that are sometimes riddled with malware-laden apps. (The just-released 2015 Verizon Data Breach Incident Report found that Android malware, prevalent in Russia and China, is nearly nonexistent in the United States, where most users stick to Google Play.)

MORE: Best Android-Only Apps You Can't Find on iPhone

Google generally doesn't like forked builds of Android, deeming them a threat to overall Android compatibility and security. However, some forked devices are Google-certified and ship with the Google Mobile Services app bundle. One such device is the OnePlus One phone, which runs a variant of CyanogenMod.

Handset makers that do sign on with Google are free to create their own music, email, movies, office, calendar and contacts apps. But they can't delete YouTube, Chrome, Play, Gmail or the stand-alone Google app. That's the price of being Google-certified, and that's the quid pro quo that the European Commission is investigating.

Tizen good, Aliyun bad

The European Commission's second line of investigation will probe "whether Google has prevented smartphone and tablet manufacturers who wish to install Google's applications and services on some of their Android devices from developing and marketing modified and potentially competing versions of Android (so-called 'Android forks') on other devices, thereby illegally hindering the development and market access of rival mobile operating systems and mobile applications or services."

This charge may be based on an incident in 2012, when Google forbade the Taiwanese device maker Acer from installing the unauthorized Android fork Aliyun OS on a handset destined for the Chinese market. Acer had previously signed up to use Google-certified Android on other models, and Google said that agreement prevented Acer from using Google Android on some phones and Android forks on others.

However, Google has no problem when Android handset makers also make and sell non-Android phones. Such exclusivity would be truly anticompetitive, yet Google doesn't blink when HTC sells Windows phones alongside Android ones, or when Samsung sells not only Android and Windows phones, but also handsets running Tizen, an open-source OS that, like Android, is based on Linux, but uses no Android "parts."

Does not play well with others

The third line of investigation will be "whether Google has illegally hindered the development and market access of rival applications and services by tying or bundling certain Google applications and services distributed on Android devices with other Google applications, services and/or application programming interfaces of Google."

This sounds like a serious allegation, but it's so vague that it might not be. One interpretation is  that Google may be guilty of creating apps and online services that work well together — just as consumers would expect. The European Commission seems to be arguing that Google's Android apps should work just as smoothly with other companies' online services, as do, for example, the Google Calendar app and Microsoft Exchange.

This line of inquiry would gain teeth if it could be shown that Google apps had an unfair advantage over other apps in their Android application program interfaces (APIs), or ways in which apps interact with the underlying operating system.

Does Google give its own apps special privileges in the Android OS? We don't have the answer to that, but we've never heard any accusations to that effect, and we know that non-Google apps seem to work well on both Google-branded and AOSP-derived builds of Android.

Bureaucrats can't keep up with technology

Looking over these charges, it's hard not to suspect that the European Commission doesn't understand how technological innovation works. In a statement, the Commission said the investigation into Android "will focus on whether Google has breached EU antitrust rules by hindering the development and market access of rival mobile operating systems, applications and services."

The Commission seems to think that if it doesn't act, then Android will stifle all competition and no newer, better technology will have the chance to arise. But remember that eight years ago, there was no Android and no iOS, and that Palm and BlackBerry were the dominant smartphone platforms.

Eight years from now, Android and iOS may be as extinct as Palm is today, due to "natural" technological market selection and not any bureaucratic ruling. Given the glacial pace of European Commission antitrust inquiries, the Commission's investigation into Google and Android should be wrapping up just about then.

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and gaming. Follow him at @snd_wagenseilFollow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.