Android users could be harmed by EU ruling

A European Union Antitrust Commission decision to remove Google’s Play Services and apps from Android could disrupt users and make the OS less secure

Android users could be harmed by EU ruling
Credit: Thijs ter Haar/Flickr

Yesterday, the European Union launched an inquiry into Android’s dominant 80% share of the smartphone market. The Antitrust Commission announced it will investigate the connection between Google Play services and Google apps.

Any smartphone supplier can run the Android Open Source Project (OASP,) a free and available as an open source project. China’s Xiaomi, for instance, takes the Android OASP and repackages it with a UI that looks like iPhone’s UI.  Xaomi doesn’t opt in to the Play Store for its apps, but relies on its own app store. 

Most hardware OEMs opt in to Google Play services because they want access to the million plus apps on the Play Store and Android’s security services. Security is a more subtle point but an important part of the Android operating systems architecture that is built on Play Services.

Every app uploaded to the Play store is inspected for malware using automated code scanners and machine learning.  Security scanning extends beyond inspection of apps within the Play Store, but Play Services scans the on-device behavior of apps to determine if the app’s behavior is potentially harmful. A hardware OEM opting out of Play Services would not only need to invest in sourcing apps elsewhere,  but also in security. Building an app store and security services that match the quality and scale of Play Services would be too expensive for most OEMs, except maybe Samsung.

OEMs in China don’t use Play Services because Alphabet and China have a long-standing disagreement over Internet censorship and unfair trade practices by the Chinese government favoring Chinese internet companies. Most of Google’s products aren’t available in China, including Play Services.  Chinese users have paid the price of six times the number of potentially harmful apps on their Android devices, according to last year’s Android Security Year in Review Report (PDF.)

OEMs opting into Play Services must sign the Mobile Application Distribution Agreement requiring that Google’s ecosystem of services, such as search, mail and maps are installed and displayed in a folder on the home screen.  Unless Microsoft drops Windows for Android there’s really no incentive for another OEM to mix and match applications. Bing and Yahoo Search, Microsoft Outlook and HERE maps are available, so no-one is prevented from installing and using alternatives.

The present situation is different than the Steve Ballmer strong arm days when Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer with the Windows OS and actively tried to prevent competitors’ browsers from being installed. The EU Antitrust Commission investigation into Microsoft Internet Explorer bundling was resolved by letting users choose from a list of twelve browsers during set up. 

Alphabet could and can be expected to argue that Play Services is not an obstacle to choice but a vehicle to which any non-harmful app can be added to the Play Store and downloaded with play services that increase users options and security.

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