Google and the European Union have been fighting for several years over Android’s default search engine. Just like when the EU took issue with Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, the EU Antitrust enforcers don’t want Google using its Android operating system monopoly to prop up Google Search and Google Chrome. The solution the EU came to—just like it did with Windows—is a “ballot” system that pops up during setup and asks users to pick a starting browser and search engine from a list. The only problem? Google was charging companies to appear in this list. It was basically an ad vector. In a blog post this week, Google says it will stop doing that.
The ballots that allowed users to pick a search engine and browser only have five spots, and with way more than five browsers and search engines available, deciding who gets on the list is a contentious subject. First, Google decided that preinstalled apps get sorted to the top of the list. As you can see in the screenshot, the preinstalled apps are almost always Google apps, so Google’s decision here happens to work out really well for the company.
As for the other four slots, Google originally described them in 2019 by saying, “Apps that are not already installed on the device will be included based on their popularity and shown in a random order.” Sometime after that, Google fell back on its instincts as the world’s largest advertising company and thought, “Those are actually ad slots, and we should charge for them!”
So Google started a “choice screen auction” where vendors could bid to appear during Android setup, similar to how Google Adsense works.
Google’s blog post says that, “following further feedback from the Commission,” the search ballot will no longer be a “promotional opportunity” for vendors and will be “free for eligible search providers.” Interestingly, the company doesn’t say anything about the browser ballot, but starting in September, the search ballot will be free. Google also says it will increase the number of search providers shown on the list.
Google was hit with a $5 billion fine and told to unbundle Chrome and Search from Android for violating the EU’s antitrust rules. The base Android OS is open source, but the Google apps—which are critical to building a commercially viable Android phone—are not open source and require licensing from Google. Google uses the Google Play licensing terms as a big stick to make Android vendors do what it wants.
In addition to mandating all sorts of compatibility requirements, the terms build in a lot of Google protectionism, like banning the development of Android forks and forcing vendors to license all the Google apps as a bundle. The EU put a stop to many of these requirements in Europe, allowing vendors to pick and choose what Google apps they want and to sell forked Android devices without being exiled from Google’s ecosystem.
Part of Google’s restrictive licensing terms are protectionism, but they’re also how Google funds Android development. Traditionally, Google hasn’t charged for Android or the Google apps, choosing instead to partially support Android through revenue from ads in Google Search. In response to the EU’s rulings, vendors that want Google Play can either 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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