I explained the commission's three main concerns, which revolve around reported requirements for Google's hardware partners. The issues have to do with Google's own apps and services must be pre-installed and prominent on phones and tablets, as well as stopping hardware partners from using the open source version of Android on other devices they make.
The European Commission will surely want to dig deeper into those agreements, which Google's partners choose to accept, or not, as the case may be. But such agreements are difficult to find publicly as details of the relationships between Google and partners is confidential.
It's worth noting here, that I'm not a lawyer. Ben Edelman is, however, as he holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School. And in 2014 he tracked down one actual example of the elusive agreement, known as a MADA, or Mobile Application Distribution Agreement.
You can view the full PDF scans of both documents in the links above, but Edeleman points to a few key clauses that are very relevant.
"Devices may only be distributed if all Google Applications [listed elsewhere in the agreement] ... are pre-installed on the Device."
The phone manufacturer must "preload all Google Applications approved in the applicable Territory ... on each device."
The phone manufacturer must place "Google's Search and the Android Market Client icon [Google Play] ... at least on the panel immediately adjacent to the Default Home Screen," with "all other Google Applications ... no more than one level below the Phone Top."
The phone manufacturer must set "Google Search ... as the default search provider for all Web search access points."
Clearly, Google's partners -- at least in this particular agreement -- have to make Google's apps and services front-and-center on any Android devices. That's not nesscessarily surprising, nor unique to Google. And if a company that builds tablets or phones doesn't want to do so, they can just use the less restrictive, open source version of Android. Or can they?
"Non-compatible versions of Android, like Aliyun, weaken the ecosystem. All members of the Open Handset Alliance have committed to building one Android platform and to not ship non-compatible Android devices. This does not however, keep OHA members from participating in competing ecosystems."
Essentially, Google is saying that Acer agreed not to ship devices running the open source version of Android when it signed its Google Android agreements. I don't see any such restriction in either the Samsung or HTC MADA documents, so it's difficult to say if there's a formal agreement backing up Google's statement. And, to be fair, we're talking about documentation from 2011; the agreements may have changed since then, although the terms are for two years.
Again, I'm not a lawyer. But after reading through the MADA and considering how it strongly benefits Google, I can reasonably see the EU's initial concerns. The more highly-qualified Edelman seems to agree, noting,
"These MADA restrictions suppress competition. Thanks to the MADA, alternative vendors of search, maps, location, email, and other apps cannot outcompete Google on the merits; even if a competitor offers an app that's better than Google's offering, the carrier is obliged to install Google's app also, and Google can readily amend the MADA to require making its app the default in the corresponding category (for those apps that don't already have this additional protection)."
This is the main reason you may have seen multiple versions of apps that offer similar functionality on Android phones. Look at a handset from Samsung, for example, and you'll often find two email applications, two app stores, several apps for text messages and so on. It's the only way Samsung or other Google Android partners can try to boost their own ecosystem of apps and services.
Actually, there is a second way, but it's far less preferrable. Samsung's Tizen software effort is the perfect example. The company apparently can't use the open source version of Android to build out a new line of phones, so it chose a competing platform to do so. That project has been repeatedly delayed, resulting in a single, low-cost handset with two more possibly on the way. These phones aren't big sellers though because they're competing against similarly priced Google Android devices that have a much more robust app and service ecosystem.
It doesn't matter to the European Commission what I think, but I can certainly understand why it's launching the probe. Google's partners technically had a choice to enter into these agreements. If they hadn't though, they'd be losing out on market share to competitors that have accepted Google's terms. The only other choice would be to go it alone with another platform and as Samsung has shown, that's not a desirable one.