Reuters / Elijah Nouvelage
Google's Android operating system is actually open source. But as we were reminded this week, the tech giant still has total control over the apps and services that make its platform so valuable.
How much Google Android has under control became clear in mid-May, when the news agency Reuters reported that the company would withdraw the Chinese cell phone giant Huawei the Android license. The decision is reported to follow the order of US President Donald Trump, who has banned trade with certain Chinese companies.
At a stroke, Google may prevent new Huawei devices in markets around the world from using the Google Play Store and other Google Play services. That is, as long as Trump's spell lasts, devices made by Huawei may be running the open source version of Android, but they will not have access to popular apps and services – like Chrome, Gmail, or Youtube – or periodic updates. Even Google's huge Appstore is not accessible to Huawei.
Google announcedthat existing Huawei users still have access to the Google Play app store and security features. When the US government granted Huawei a 90-day grace period on Tuesday, Google acted accordingly.
"Keeping phones up to date and making them safe is in everyone's interest. The temporary license allows us to provide software updates and security patches for existing models over the next 90 days, "a Google spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement.
Despite the grace period, the looming blow to Huawei's smartphone business could be catastrophic – the second largest in the world at the beginning of the month. Without access to an Appstore and services like Google's search engine or maps, the prospects are gloomy.
Huawei said in March that the company is developing its own operating system in case the US enforces sanctions against it. On Tuesday, US financial magazine "Bloomberg" reported that Huawei had spoken with European mobile network operators and developers to convince them to optimize apps for Huawei's own platform.
But the likelihood is low that Huawei will win developers who develop applications for its operating system – especially for apps that Google already provides today – believes Carolina Milanesi, chief analyst at US firm Creative Strategies.
"You can build another OS … but what should customers use instead of Google Search, Maps and YouTube?" Milanesi Business Insider said in an interview recently. "There are alternatives to all these things, but why should I do that? It's not like Huawei's smartphones are so great that I can do without all the services I've been using for years. "
There are two types of androids
The situation in which Huawei is located brings light into the darkness of the smartphone industry, in which Google has incredible power.
Although it is widely known that the tech giant's Android platform has an overwhelming market share among operating systems – more than 85 percent of smartphones worldwide are running Android, as market research firm IDC reported – hardly anyone knows that there are two types of Android There is the official Google version of Android, which is regularly updated by the company (the latest version, Android Q, is currently in beta testing) and there is the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). AOSP is freely available to anyone who wants to use, tinker or adapt to it.
But if you want the Android version that comes with the latest security updates, modern Google services like Assistant and other benefits, you need to get the license from Google. (Although it has to be said that the Android updates are mostly controlled by mobile phone manufacturers and mobile network operators who decide which devices get which updates and when.)
"The problem with the matter is that you can only use the open source version, where anyone can view the code and contribute to it, with the permission of Google," said analyst Frank Gill of market research firm Forrester Business Insider.
Since Android can be open source, users of the ASOP version often have different, sometimes below-average usage experiences.
By packaging services and restricting access to the official version, Google enables more consistent user experiences across the Android ecosystem, says Gilett. For example, the launch of Google Play services in 2012 allowed Google to instill organization and standards into a part of the Android world, while at the same time ensuring that Google retained tremendous power over the platform.
"From a developer's perspective, Android is open source," says Milanesi. "But Google puts a lot of extra work into it to optimize its services to benefit them."
Huawei has few to no options
In China – where trade sanctions are already in effect – Huawei phones are running on a customized version of AOSP. Everything under the hood is Android, but the system has its own look and feel that the company has developed.
Users of these phones in China have access to some apps, such as Gmail, but the devices lack other important services, such as controlled updates and security updates. For these users, little will change after Google's break with Huawei.
But in the world market, where Huawei sells a large amount of its products, the Huawei phones run on Google's Android version. It contains all the Google apps that customers want, such as the search engine, maps, and Youtube. These customers will not accept a limited user experience, said Ben Bajarin, chief analyst at Creative Strategies.
"(Huawei) will have to do something if things do not clear up," Bajarin Business Insider said in a recent interview. "You obviously will not stop selling cell phones. But they will not succeed with a slimmed-down version of Android. "
If Huawei's plans for developing an Android alternative true, the story is not on their side. Most recently, Samsung tried to develop its own operating system – Tizen – but the cell phones and their linux-based operating system could not keep up with the competition. In a review by Samsung's Tizen, the US tech magazine "Ars Technica" wrote that Tizen "felt like a hollow copy of an Android version without apps."
The fact that Huawei finds it difficult to find (or develop) an alternative operating system raises the question of whether Google's Android has a monopoly in the smartphone industry. If Google can paralyze the second largest handset maker with a simple decision, these concerns seem appropriate.
Google was the victim of the recent techlash when politicians like US Senator Elizabeth Warren called for smashing parts of Google that dominated industries such as the search engine. However, Warren did not suggest regulating or beating Android.
Read also: Trump's Huawei ban is pure hypocrisy
Perhaps this week's events will increase pressure on Google to loosen control of Android, or encourage other operating systems to expand. Ultimately, Trump's move to blacklist Huawei could only be a lever for negotiating the trade war with China. Already next week, the order in the smartphone world could be restored.
If not, it will be interesting.
This text was translated from English by Joshua Fritz.