Trapped in a box - Android may not be so open after all


Android might not be as free and open as Google would like you to believe. A newly released document, detailing licensing terms between Google and HTC as well as Samsung, shows that Google decides not only what OEMs put on their Android devices, but where they can put it.

The document, called the Mobile Application Distribution Agreement, was evidence in the 2012 lawsuit between Oracle and Google. Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman published the document on Wednesday as soon as it was released. Although the documents are actually from 2011, they give a pretty clear idea of the types of restrictions and demands Google makes of device manufacturers.

In fact, because these agreements are from 2011 when Android was not yet the king of the mobile OS world, it is entirely possible that Google has since increased the level of its restrictions. Given the recent argument between Samsung and Google over the purity of Android, it seems very probable that Google is more possessive of its OS now than it was in three years ago.

These documents refer to Android 3.0 Honeycomb, a very early version of the OS, and yet they contain a surprisingly large number of rules for OEMs. Basically, if an OEM wants to give its users access to the Google Play store, it has to do things Google's way. 

"Devices may only be distributed if all Google Applications... are pre-installed on the Device," the document reads.

In other words, OEMs can't just take their pick of apps from Google's app suite, they have to include them all or the device will not be allowed to exist. There are at least 20 Google apps that all Android devices must come with preinstalled. That's a pretty tall order and means that OEMs are left with a lot less space to preinstall their own apps let alone customer favorites.

OEMs are not allowed to take "any actions that may cause or result in the fragmentation of Android" either, or to distribute or promote "a software development kit derived from Android." 

In addition, OEMs must take care to place Google's apps and specific Android features in the correct place on each and every smartphone and tablet they produce under the Android brand. Google demands that the "Google Phone-top Search and the Android Market Client icon must be placed at least on the panel immediately adjacent to the Default Home Screen," meaning that the search bar and the Play store (formerly known as the Android Market Client) must be located on or immediately near the default home screen.

The agreement also states that "all other Google Applications will be placed no more than one level below the Phone Top," so they too, have to be readily available. Google also will allow no other search engine to be used as default on any Android devices.  Essentially, Google wants to make sure that the majority of the apps you use are made by Google - no one else.

OEMs are under constant surveillance from Google, too, because they must send a report of how many devices they have sold each month to Google. Before an OEM can even think about launching an Android device, it must show Google four samples of each device model. Then, and only then, will Google give the OEM the authority to launch said device.

"Open Devices. The parties will create an open environment for the Devices by making all Android Products and Android Application Programming Interfaces available and open on the Devices and will take no action to limit or restrict the Android platform," the document adds.

Clearly, the irony of that statement is totally lost on Google.

Is it any wonder that Samsung is looking to Tizen for a bit of freedom?

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