The myth about Android being an open source platform is slowing fading away. Google is exerting more pressure on its hardware vendor partners and if a report by Re/code is to be believed, the latest target is Samsung. Apparently, Google executives were not amused by Samsung’s new Magazine UI it showcased on some of its Galaxy Tabs at CES earlier this month, which prompted many to compare it to Flipboard and even Windows 8′s Metro UI. The episode led to talks between the two companies, where Google wanted to ensure Samsung backs off in its effort to change the fabric of Android.
Samsung is the world’s largest smartphone maker, shipping almost a third of all smartphones in 2013. It is not only the largest Android smartphone maker but is also the only one making any significant money selling them. This makes Samsung Google’s most important partner and chatter from the past few months about Samsung planning to fork Android and make its own suite of services would have Google execs on the edge of their seats.
Google makes little money by licensing its Google Mobile Suite of apps and services, but makes more money off getting more information about users from their smartphone usage and serving them targeted ads. Hardware makers have an option to play by Google’s rules and get access to its apps and services or to make their own parallel ecosystem on top of Android, something that Amazon has done and Nokia is on the verge of doing. In the latter case, Google does not get anything – money or user information.
At the risk of losing its biggest smartphone partner, Google has reportedly convinced Samsung to step back on its customization and also stop some bundling some of its apps that duplicate functionality of apps that Google already provides. Samsung has a number of apps including ChatOn, its so-called Google Talk competitor messaging app, its own app and content stores including movies, music and books. None of these have been successful at any significant scale, yet it would put Google at ease that its largest hardware partner does not intend to compete with it. According to the report, Samsung has also agreed to push Google apps rather than doing some of the pre-installing deals it has done with apps like Dropbox and others.
It is not clear what Samsung got in return for accepting to Google’s wishes but it won’t be surprising that this Sunday’s far-ranging patent licensing agreement signed between the two companies would be one of the concessions Google had to make. Google’s decision to sell Motorola to Lenovo will also go a long way in diffusing the trust deficit between the two companies.
Other concessions could include an agreement about who gets to make future Nexus devices – the last two Nexus smartphones were made by LG, while the tablets have been made by Asus. A report earlier this week suggested that Google could nix its Nexus program and go with Google Play edition devices, in order to avoid irking its many hardware partners.
Samsung could have also negotiated for an early access to future Android versions, which could be a huge competitive advantage. With its shipment numbers, Samsung has the negotiating power. However, its position could have weakened by the recent setback to its Tizen program – a competing operating system to Android – after NTT Docomo canceled its plans to launch smartphones running on the new platform.
With this move, Google is ensuring that it still retains control over the direction it wants Android to take, rather than letting it meander in different directions like any truly open source project. Having the largest and dominant player in the market on your side ensures that happens.
Though I have complained about Android’s crapware problem in the past, this move by Google is worrying for Android. This would be disastrous for app makers that compete with Google services, which would no longer be pre-installed on Samsung devices, if the deal goes through. Irrespective of whether the deal goes through or not, it more or less settles any doubts one had about Android’s openness.
Photograph: Paranjay Dutt