Google and the European Union have been fighting over Android’s default search engine for several years now. Much like when the EU disagreed with Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, EU antitrust enforcers don’t want Google to use its monopoly on the Android operating system to support Google Search and Google Chrome. The solution that the EU came up with – just like with Windows – is a “ballot” system that pops up during installation and asks users to choose a starting browser and search engine from a list. The only problem? Google was to upload companies to appear in this list. It was actually an ad vector. In a blog post this week, Google says it will stop doing so.
The ballots that allowed users to choose a search engine and browser only have five spots, and with many more than five browsers and search engines available, deciding who gets on the list is a controversial topic. First, Google has decided that pre-installed apps will be at the top of the list. As you can see in the screenshot, the pre-installed apps are almost always Google apps, so Google’s decision here works out really well for the company.
As for the other four slots, Google originally described them in 2019 saying, “Apps not yet installed on the device are listed based on their popularity and are listed in random order.” Some time after that, Google fell back on its instincts as the world’s largest advertising company and thought, “Those are actually ad slots, and we have to charge for that!”
So Google started a “choice screen auction” where sellers could bid to appear during Android setup, similar to how Google Adsense works.
Google’s blog post states that “following further feedback from the Commission”, the search vote will no longer be a “promotional opportunity” for suppliers and will be “free to eligible search engines”. Interestingly, the company doesn’t say anything about the browser vote, but as of September, the search vote will be free. Google also says it will increase the number of search engines on the list.
Google was fined $5 billion and ordered to unbundle Chrome and Search from Android for violating EU antitrust rules. The base Android operating system is open source, but the Google apps, which are essential to building a commercially viable Android phone, are not open source and require licensing from Google. Google uses the Google Play license terms as a big stick to let Android vendors do what they want.
In addition to mandating all sorts of compatibility requirements, the terms contain a lot of Google protectionism, such as banning the development of Android forks and forcing vendors to license all Google apps as a bundle. The EU has stopped many of these requirements in Europe, allowing suppliers to choose which Google apps they want and sell forked Android devices without being banned from Google’s ecosystem.
Some of Google’s restrictive license terms are protectionism, but they’re also Google’s way of funding Android development. Traditionally, Google has not charged Android or the Google apps, opting instead to partially support Android through advertising revenue in Google Search. In response to the EU’s rulings, vendors who want Google Play can bundle apps the way Google wants and use the ad-supported revenue plan or pay as much as $40 per device to license the Play Store.
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