Europe fines Google another €1.5 billion after belated Android concession

US search giant Google has received yet another fine from the European Commission, this time for abusing its dominant position in online advertising.

Specifically this ruling refers to ads served against Google search results embedded in third party websites. The EC doesn’t like the way Google used to go about this and, having reviewed loads of historical contracts between Google and these other websites, found the following:

  • Starting in 2006, Google included exclusivity clauses in its contracts. This meant that publishers were prohibited from placing any search adverts from competitors on their search results pages. The decision concerns publishers whose agreements with Google required such exclusivity for all their websites.
  • As of March 2009, Google gradually began replacing the exclusivity clauses with so-called “Premium Placement” clauses. These required publishers to reserve the most profitable space on their search results pages for Google’s adverts and request a minimum number of Google adverts. As a result, Google’s competitors were prevented from placing their search adverts in the most visible and clicked on parts of the websites’ search results pages.
  • As of March 2009, Google also included clauses requiring publishers to seek written approval from Google before making changes to the way in which any rival adverts were displayed. This meant that Google could control how attractive, and therefore clicked on, competing search adverts could be.

EC google ad graphic

Taken at face value this would appear to be a clear abuse of Google’s dominant position and it seems to have got off pretty lightly, since it got a much bigger fine for abusing Android’s dominant position last year, on which more below. The EC has been pretty consistent in its position on dominant US tech players deliberately seeking to restrict competition, just ask Microsoft and Intel, so none of this can have come as a surprise to Google.

“Today the Commission has fined Google €1.49 billion for illegal misuse of its dominant position in the market for the brokering of online search adverts,” said Commissioner in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager. “Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anti-competitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules. The misconduct lasted over 10 years and denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate – and consumers the benefits of competition.”

As the quote indicates, Google isn’t doing this anymore, but only packed it in once the EC flagged it up in 2016, so that’s still a decade of naughtiness. For some reason Google also chose today to show some belated contrition for one of the things it got fined for last year: forcing Android OEMs to preinstall Google Search and the Chrome browser.

In a blog post amusingly entitled Supporting choice and competition in Europe, Google SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker started by stressing there’s nothing he loves more than healthy, thriving markets. Having said that he went on to make it clear that its most recent move to improve competition was taken solely to get the EC off its back.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” wrote Walker. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones. This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

How touching. Presumably today was some kind of deadline for Google to comply or else. The matter of browser choice is highly reminiscent of Europe’s case against Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. The prime beneficiary of that was, you guessed it, Google, which now accounts for around two thirds of European desktop browser share (see chart), achieved through merit rather than cheating. How sad then, so see history repeating itself on mobile.

So that takes the total amount Europe has fined Google to €8.25 billion. In response to a question after her announcement (below) Vestager revealed the EC has some kind of fine ceiling of 10% of annual revenues so, since Google brought in around €120 billion last year that still leaves plenty of room for further fines if Google keeps getting funny ideas. Incidentally she also revealed that the fines get distributed to member countries, not trousered by the EC itself, which is reassuring.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Browser Market Share

Qottab, Quindim or Quesito? Google releases Android Q beta

Every year Google releases a new version of Android, and while it is marginally entertaining to guess what sweetie it will be named after, it also provides a very useful roadmap for the future of mobility.

In controlling roughly 74% of the global mobile Operating System (OS) market share, Android is in a unique position to dictate how the ecosystem develops over the short- and medium-term. This year’s update appears larger and more wide-ranging than previous iterations, perhaps representing the significant changes to the industry in recent months.

“In 2019, mobile innovation is stronger than ever, with new technologies from 5G to edge to edge displays and even foldable screens,” said Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android. “Android is right at the centre of this innovation cycle, and thanks to the broad ecosystem of partners across billions of devices, Android’s helping push the boundaries of hardware and software bringing new experiences and capabilities to users.”

Privacy updates, gaming enhancements, features to accommodate for new connectivity requirements and addressing the foldable phone phenomenon, there is plenty for developers to consider this year.

Privacy as a product

New demands are being placed on developers around the world when it comes to privacy, but in truth, they have no-one to blame for the extra work than themselves.

This is not to say all developers have abused the trust of the consumer, but numerous scandals over the last 18 months and the opaque manner in which society was educated on the data-sharing machine has created a backlash. Privacy demands have been heightened through regulation and consumer expectations, meaning these elements are slowly becoming a factor in the purchasing process.

There are numerous privacy and security updates here which suggests Google has appreciated the importance of privacy to the consumer. Privacy could soon become a selling point, and Google is on hand with many of the updates based on its Project Strobe initiative.

Perhaps one of the most important updates here is more granular control of the permissions for individual apps. Users will not only have more control on what data is shared with which apps, but developers can no-longer request for consent for a catch-all data hoovering plan, while Google is also cracking down on un-necessary permissions. The team is updating its User Data Policy for the consumer Gmail API to ensure only apps directly enhancing email functionality have authorisation, while the same is being done for call functionality, call logs and SMS.

Data Privacy Survey

Source: GDMA: Global data privacy: What the consumer really thinks

Aside from the permissions updates noted above, users will also have more control over when apps can get location data. While some developers have abused the trust of users by collecting this data when irrelevant as to whether the app is open or not, users will now have the power to give apps permission to see their location never, only when the app is in use (running), or all the time.

There are other updates to the permissions side including audio collections, access to cameras and other media files. All of these updates represent one thing; privacy is a real issue and (theoretically) the power is being handed back to the consumer.

That said, Ovum’s Chief Analyst Ed Barton notes the critical importance of privacy features today, however, as Google could be considered one of the main contributors to the root problem, you must question how much trust the consumer actually has.

“It is noteworthy that privacy is something one might reasonably assume to have in most situations in modern life except in one’s digital life where the default expectation is that a vast digital platform knows more about you than your life partner and immediate family,” said Barton. “It is these circumstances which enables the concepts of privacy, personal data control and trust to be highlighted and used as marketing bullets.

“Privacy in something like an OS is meaningless unless you can trust the entity which made it so with Android Q the question, as always, is ‘how much do you trust Google’?”

Gaming enters the mainstream

Another major update to Android Q looks to target the increasingly popular segment of mobile gaming.

“Gaming remains one of the most popular genres on the app stores, while smartphones have allowed the industry to connect with the masses,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“This has led to emergence of new games providers and a surge in casual and social gamers, while the arrival of 5G will open further opportunities for cloud based multiplayer games due to faster and more reliable connections and low latency. Mobile devices will be key in this new wave that also promises to bring virtual and physical worlds closer together providing users with immersive experiences.”

Capture

Source: KPMG: The Changing Landscape of Disruptive Technologies report

Here, there are two main updates which we would like to focus on. Firstly, Vulkan and ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) to improve more immersive experiences. And secondly, improved connectivity APIs.

Starting with the graphics side, Android Q will add experimental support for ANGLE on top of Vulkan on Android devices to allow for high-performance OpenGL compatibility across implementations. The team is also continuing to expand the impact of Vulkan on Android, with the aim to make Vulkan on Android a broadly supported and consistent developer API for graphics.

In short, this means more options and greater depth when it comes to creating immersive experiences.

On the connectivity front, not only has Google refactored the wifi stack to improve privacy and performance, developers can request adaptive wifi in Android Q by enabling high performance and low latency modes. There are of course numerous usecases for low latency throughout the connectivity ecosystem, but from a consumer perspective, real-time gaming and active voice calls are two of the most prominent.

Gaming has slowly been accumulating more support and penetrating the mass market, and some of the features for Android Q will certainly help this blossoming segment.

Foldable phones; fad or forever?

Considering the euphoria which was drummed up in Mobile World Congress this year, it should hardly come as a surprise the latest edition of Android addresses the new demands of the products.

“To help your apps to take advantage of these and other large-screen devices, we’ve made a number of improvements in Android Q, including changes to onResume and onPause to support multi-resume and notify your app when it has focus,” the team said in the blog announcement.

There are of course a number of useful features which come with the increased real-estate, one of which is being able to run more than one app simultaneously without having to flick back and forth, as you can see from the image below.

Google Update

There are of course advantages to the new innovation, but you have to question whether there are enough benefits to outweigh the incredible cost of the devices. The power of smartphone and the astonishing tsunami of cash in the digital economy is only because of scale. With Samsung’s foldable device coming in at $1,980, and Huawei’s at $2,600, these are not devices which are applicable for scale.

Google is preparing itself should the foldable revolution take hold, but mass adoption is needed more than anything else. The price of these devices will have to come down for there to be any chance of these devices cracking the mainstream market, and considering recent trends suggesting the consumer is becoming more cash conscious, they will have to come down a lot.

The price might also impact the development of the subsequent ecosystem. Developers are under time constraints already, and therefore have to prioritise tasks. Without the scale of mainstream adoption, few developers will focus on the new form factor when creating applications and content. With little reward, what’s the point? Price will need to come down to ensure there is appetite for the supporting ecosystem to make any use of this innovation.

We’ve been complaining about a lack of innovation in the devices market for years, so it is a bit cruel to complain when genuine innovation does emerge, but a lot of work needs to be done to give foldable screens as much opportunity for widespread consumer adoption.

Apple slaps Google and Facebook on the wrist

One day after Facebook had its enterprise developer certificates revoked by Apple, Google ran into similar troubles with the iOS and App Store owner.

It turned out that Facebook was not the only naughty player attempting to circumvent Apple’s rules to forbid apps developed under enterprise certificates to be distributed outside of the company. Google was found to have distributed a data monitoring and survey app called Screenwise Meter. The app comes with Apple’s enterprise developer certificate granted to Google and has been distributed to a “panel” selected and maintained in partnership with the research firm GfK. The panel may include users as young as 13, or with the parents’ consent, those under 13 though the data monitoring method will be modified.

It is not clear if it was a reaction to the revocation of Facebook’s certificates, but Google stopped the distribution of Screenwise Meter before Apple acted. “The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize,” Google said in a statement on Wednesday. “We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in the app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”

However, Google’s developer certificates were still made invalid by Apple on Thursday, reported first by The Verge. This resulted in Google’s pre-release beta apps as well as employee-only apps, for example those for using Google’s shuttle bus or coffee shops, stopping working. (One cannot help but wondering how many employees in Google, which controls Android and releases its own Pixel smartphones, are using iPhone as their primary devices.) The tone from Apple, however, was much reconciliatory. “We are working together with Google to help them reinstate their enterprise certificates very quickly,” said the statement from Apple to BuzzFeed.

In comparison, Apple was much sterner when pulling the plug on Facebook. “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple.”

To look at the two cases together, there are two types of issues Apple needs to deal with. To borrow the economics jargons, one is normative, i.e. based on principles, another is positive, i.e. based on facts. On the normative side, Apple should clarify whether Facebook and Google were punished for launching apps gathering users’ private data or for distributing the apps under the wrong type of certificates and through unofficial channels, i.e. not using the App Store.

Although most media coverage was focused on the Facebook app gathering user data, it looks that Apple was more annoyed by the fact that Facebook (and Google) has abused its enterprise developer certificates. It said in the statement related to Facebook: “Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case (of Facebook) to protect our users and their data.”

However, what drove Facebook to distribute “Facebook Research”, the app in question through unorthodox channels, looks to be that Apple has banned apps to gather user data as detailed as app history, private messages, and location, from being listed in the App Store. In its “App Store Review Guidelines”, Apple stated “5.1.1 Data Collection and Storage: (iii) Data Minimization: Apps should only request access to data relevant to the core functionality of the app and should only collect and use data that is required to accomplish the relevant task. Where possible, use the out-of-process picker or a share sheet rather than requesting full access to protected resources like Photos or Contacts.”

The rule above would be caught in a paradox in cases where the “core functionality” of an app is to gather detailed user data and is explicit with it. That was the case with “Facebook Research”. Facebook said in its statement: “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

As an aside, despite the repeated furore towards Facebook recently, neither users nor advertisers seem to be deterred. The Q4 results recently published showed that in Europe, where GDPR went into effect mid-2018, Facebook’s monthly active users went up from 375 million in Q3 to 381 million, and the average revenue per user in Europe jumped from $8.82 in Q3 up to $10.98.

If Apple was unhappy with companies distributing apps developed under enterprise certificates to users outside of the enterprises, there would come the positive side of the issues, i.e. related how Apple implements the rule. Whether Apple was punishing Facebook and Google as a deterrent to other companies that have or might have distributed apps externally using enterprise certificates, or it will go after all offenders, remains to be seen.

If it was the former tactic, an old Chinese saying that goes “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” would summarise it well, though the two chickens Apple has put the knife in are much fatter than most monkeys. On the other hand, if Apple were true to its word that it would act on “any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers”, it may find a long line of chickens (or monkeys) standing in the line. Alex Fajkowski, a Twitter user and iOS app developer, suggested that both Amazon and DoorDash were distributing apps to recruit temporary deliverers. Then a longer list of companies suspected of doing the same thing was drawn up, including companies like Square and Sonos (though Sonos looks to have removed the page recently).

Looking at it either way, it is clear that Apple is tightening the control over its already tightly controlled ecosystem. With Services becoming increasingly important, Apple would not want to see any loss of revenues from iOS apps distributed outside of App Store, nor would it want to be seen complacent or even complicit in any comprise of users’ privacy. Or, standing up to the internet giants which have been on the receiving end of much anger, could score a PR victory for Apple.

Both Facebook and Google had their enterprise certificates restored by Thursday evening.

Google is expanding eSim reach beyond Fi

With connectivity taking a more prominent role, Google has tied more partnerships to support eSim on the Pixel 3, taking the business into international markets.

While the eSim functionality on Pixel 2, claimed by Google to be “the first major smartphone with eSIM”, only worked on Google’s own MVNO, Project Fi (now Google Fi), the internet giant just announced it has built more support for eSim on its new Pixel 3 phones. The partners listed in the Google statement included Sprint in the US, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone in Germany, EE in the UK, and Airtel and Reliance Jio in India. Also included are Truphone and Gigsky, two MVNOs that operate in multiple markets.

After Apple threw its weight behind eSim with its latest products, projections of the penetration of eSim have been raised. ABI Research now predicts 420 million eSim compatible phones will be shipped by 2022, 100 times higher than the four million sold in 2017. Established mobile operators may still view eSim with suspicion, as it makes churn so much easier. But, like new technologies in the past, from VoIP to OTT services, it would be hard to hold back the tides of progress. Moreover, it does force operators to be more innovative and customer centric, in addition to helping improve operational efficiency. On the other hand, consumers will benefit from the flexibility and easy roaming arrangements that eSim enables.

This trend has certainly been embraced by MVNOs too. Ralph Steffens, CEO of Truphone, one of Google’s partners, said in a statement, “This new technology signifies a massive shift in the telecommunications industry. It’s having an impact on everyone from phone providers to chipset manufacturers to mobile network operators. But most importantly, it directly impacts businesses and consumers by offering them more flexibility over their mobile connectivity.”

Pixel has never been one of the best sellers, and Google needs to get the whole Android ecosystem behind it to build the eSim momentum. To this end Google is rallying the Android OEMs.

“To enable a consistent and simple experience across the ecosystem, we’re also creating a program that allows Android device makers to build eSIM-capable smartphones. We look forward to continuing our work with our partners on the potential benefits of eSIM—whether that’s getting you connected to a phone, watch, tablet, or laptop—in the future,” Google said in the announcement.

Xiaomi the difference: Chinese smart device maker vows to disrupt UK market

Xiaomi launched Mi 8 Pro, the first time it has unveiled new products outside of Greater China, a sign of its ambition to expand in more mature markets.

At a Hollywoodian event (as almost all smartphone launches are nowadays) in Barbican Centre on Thursday, Xiaomi became the latest Chinese smartphone maker to introduce their latest products in London, following recent launches by Huawei and OnePlus. The company unveiled Mi 8 Pro, an upgrade version of its Mi 8 model launched earlier in China.

After registering impressive growth in India and other markets in Asia, as well as consolidating its position in China, Xiaomi, like some other Chinese brands, is eyeing the mature markets for new growth. Western Europe is an attractive option as the market is not flooded with hundreds of smartphone brands as in India and China, and there is a sizeable open market that is easier for new brands to set a foot in instead of having to crack the carrier market as in the US.

“Today we witness a new chapter in Xiaomi’s global expansion journey, underpinned by our global ambitions. We are thrilled to make great strides by announcing our arrival in the UK,” said Wang Xiang, Senior Vice President of Xiaomi Corporation.” By bringing a range of our amazing products at honest pricing we want to offer more choices and let everyone in the UK enjoy a connected simple life through our innovative technology.”

The newly launched Mi 8Pro and its predecessor share exactly the same hardware and software, powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 CPU, 6.21” AMOLED display (yes, need to go to the second decimal digit), 8GB RAM and 128GB onboard memory,12MP+12MP AI dual camera on the back, and 20MP selfie camera, Dual 4G SIM, Dual frequency GPS (to minimise coverage dead zones, like near tall buildings), infra-red facial recognition (to unlock with facial ID in the dark).

On the software side, Xiaomi overlayed a light MIUI skin on top of the latest Android release, plus a couple of its own preloaded apps (browser, messaging, etc.). Presumably the main point is not how many people will use its apps but rather to gather usage data. The Xiaomi executives did stress the number of active MIUI users in the world and in Europe (its products are already being sold in Spain, Italy, and France). It has also preloaded a MS Office suite, one of the first offers Microsoft made to the Android ecosystem back in 2016.

Under the spotlight was its photography technologies including the so-called “4-in-1” super-pixel, that is combining 4 pixels into 1 to take in more light, therefore to capture more details even in low light environment. Also being boasted is the speed the phone focuses (using the so-called Double Pixel Auto Focus, DPAF, technology, demonstrated in a video as faster than both the iPhone XS and the Samsung S9+). Nowadays, no presentation of smartphone cameras is complete without talking AI, and Xiaomi is no exception. The main talking point here was on the analytics capability to separate foreground from background, making post-shot processing easier.

The only genuine upgrade the Mi 8 Pro offers over the Mi 8 looks to be the fingerprint reader. It is at the back of the phone on the Mi 8, but is upgraded to on-screen reader on the Mi 8 Pro.

All the bells and whistles aside, what Xiaomi most wanted is to stand out in two areas: design and price. It is clearly successful in one, maybe less so in the other. Xiaomi claimed to go down the minimalist route for its design, claiming that it was inspired by the exhibits at the Helsinki Design Museum. It even got the director of the museum to go on video to endorse an earlier product. But what it got to show its innovative design on the new product is a transparent back-cover where the upper part of the inside of the phone is visible. But to those of us old enough to remember the 1990s, this is more a retro than inno. Swatch’s Skeleton series, anyone?

Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro_Front resized Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro_back resized

But when it comes to pricing the strategy is much bolder and more likely to succeed. Xiaomi broke through in the device market in China in 2011 by offering smartphones with decent specs at a very affordable price. This strategy has carried them through ups and downs all the way to London. The Mi 8 Pro will be retailed at £499.99. This is vastly lower than other smartphones with comparable hardware specs. Xiaomi is clearly targeted at the so-called “affordable premium” segment.

On the distribution side, Xiaomi started in China exclusively using online distribution channels. There have been followers with mixed success, but at the same Xiaomi is also diversifying to brick-and-mortar retail outlets in markets like India, Malaysia. Xiaomi also aims at a mixed channel strategy in the UK, it opens its own online shopping channel, getting online and offline channel partners (Amazon, Currys, Carphone Warehouse, Argo, John Lewis, etc.) on board, as well as opening its own authorised retailer in southwest London on 18 November. It also tied a partnership with 3UK, though Xiaomi executives would not tell more details of the terms or the packages 3 plans to offer.

Also introduced to the UK market at the event are a smart wristband (Mi Band 3, main feature being its display larger than previous generations) and an electric scooter, to deliver the “ecosystem” story—the executive stressed Xiaomi is more than a smartphone company. On display in the experience area were also smart speakers, set-top boxes, smart kettle, and smart scale.

Our overall feeling is that, the Mi 8 Pro smartphone is decent but not fantastic. However the price point Xiaomi sets it on is disruptive. This strategy has worked for the company in China and other Asian and European market, taking them to commendable market positions and financial success. It may stand a chance.

Xiaomi event pic2

New Euro Android charges could be $40 per device

Google announced earlier this week that it was going to start charging Android smartphone makers for its apps but didn’t say how much.

Tech site The Verge, however, reckons it has got hold of some documents that detail the tariffs Google intends to impose on its blameless OEM partners to make sure it doesn’t lose a single euro of profit while it wrestles with the European Commission’s trust busters. According to this ‘confidential fee schedule’ Google could demand as much as $40 per device, it’s alleged.

But these monetary considerations could just end up being bargaining chips in a process through which Google forgoes the cash so long as OEMs play ball by preinstalling all the stuff it wants. In other words Google seems to be saying “We won’t insist our stuff is bundled with Android but we will fine anyone who doesn’t.”

In that context the actual amounts involved seem irrelevant, since Google may well write them off in exchange for docile compliance, but we’ve only done three paragraphs so we might as well have a look at how they will be calculated. Essentially OEMs will have to pay more for larger screens and for exporting to richer countries. So a top-end device into the UK could be stung for $40, while a rubbish phone into Greece might only cost an extra couple of bucks.

Google seems to be somewhat sulkily throwing down the gauntlet to the EC by saying “OK, two can play at that game – if you won’t let us bundle then we’ll punish OEMs. How do you like them apples?” The EC will presumably have a bit of a think about whether this new tactic still represents an abuse of Google’s market dominance and then act accordingly.

Google ups the ante with Europe by charging Android manufacturers for its mobile products

Under pressure to be seen to comply with an EU antitrust ruling, Google has indicated that the only way to do so is to start charging for what was previously given away.

Earlier this year Europe fined Google €4.3 billion for abusing its dominance in the smartphone OS market to force the bundling of its commercial products such as search onto every Android phone. The EC found this practice to be anticompetitive since it made it harder for any other apps to compete and this reduced consumer choice.

Accompanying its inevitable decision to appeal the fine, Google CEO Sundar Pichai insisted that the existence of Android has in fact led to more consumer choice, not less – an assertion proven by all the great Android devices you can buy. Regardless Google was given 90 days to comply with the ruling or face further fines, and we now know the nature of that compliance.

In a blog post Google VP of Platforms and Ecosystems Hiroshi Lockheimer detailed the concessions Google will be making in Europe while the appeals process is underway. In essence Google will now start charging any Android device OEM that ships into the EU for the use of its mobile apps. Furthermore it will charge separately for search and Chrome, since they’re the apps that seemed to upset the EC and, as a consequence, OEMs are free to muck about with Android itself if they want.

The justification given for this move is simple: Google needs to make up for the revenue it will lose by not being able to bundle its mobile apps with Android. “Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA. Android will remain free and open source,” said the blog.

An underlying strategy, however, may be to illustrate Google’s point about all the benefits consumers have derived from Android. By charging what it previously gave away for ‘free’ (while making loads of money via the traffic through its mobile apps, of course), Google is saying that the consequence of the EU’s ruling will be for everything to become more expensive.

This is ultimately a fight over Google’s underlying business model of given stuff away and then monetising its users. But the EC does have a point the use of a dominant position to stifle competition via forced bundling and, as the former head of Internet Explorer and Windows at Microsoft notes in the tweet below, has a strong tradition of challenging this sort of thing.

One final thing to consider against Google’s claim that, if it can’t insist all its other stuff comes bundled with Android, it has to seek direct compensation is the matter of China. Google apps have been unbundled from Android there for some time and Google doesn’t seem to be getting any compensation there. If it can do that in China, why can’t it do it elsewhere?

Samsung launches its first phone based on the stripped-down Android Go platform

The world’s largest smartphone maker Samsung has unveiled the Galaxy J2 Core, its first phone built on Android Go for the entry smartphone segment.

Samsung is joining Nokia, Alcatel, Motorola, Asus, ZTE, etc. in addressing the entry segment smartphone segment, with the latest addition to its extremely diversified Galaxy series. Android Go, since it was introduced to 8.1 Oreo, has seen the product line-up slowly but surely growing, but the participation of Samsung is definitely a boost, bringing to the camp not only its expertise but also its brand clout.

The Samsung management is obviously happy with its efforts to address the entry segment and the first time smartphone owners. “The Galaxy J2 Core offers a complete smartphone experience, incorporating some of the key features available on high-end devices with improved battery, storage and performance that is particularly appealing to first time owners”, said Junho Park, Vice President of Global Product Planning, Mobile Communications Business at Samsung Electronics.

The J2 Core uses the same chassis as the J2 Pro, with same display size (5.0 inches) and resolution (540 x 960 pixels, or qHD), same cameras (8MP rear and 5MP front) though the Pro is equipped with a flash for the selfie camera. Both house battery of the same volume, and both support dual-SIM. The key difference is in computing power and memory size. The J2 Core uses Samsung’s own Exynos 7 chipset, and only has 1GB RAM and 8GB onboard memory (compared to the Pro’s 2GB RAM and 16GB memory).

Android Go has modified the standard Android to be run on lower hardware configurations including stripped-down Google applications designed to consume less memory and less data. However, the biggest problem with the Android ecosystem when it comes to Android Go is that not all applications have followed Google’s example, therefore the saving on memory and data does not go very far. In particular, quite a few applications, most social networks, for example, have disabled the option to be offloaded to run on external memory card, which means the onboard memory is still likely to run out pretty quickly. This will frustrate users, especially those first-time owners who may not be the most tech-savvy consumers.

Samsung does not disclose J2 Core’s retail price levels in the first two markets it will be made available.

AI Pie is Google’s latest recipe for Android

Google has released the latest version of the Android operating system, named Pie, which unsurprisingly bigs up artificial intelligence credentials for the digital economy.

While it is the hottest buzzword of 2018, Google has been plugging AI for longer than most, arguably creating a global leadership position which few can compete with. The AI exploits date back to 2014 with Google’s acquisition of Deepmind, an organization which underpins a huge amount of success in the area, though Pie looks like it is AI-ed up to its virtual eyes.

“The latest release of Android is here! And it comes with a heaping helping of artificial intelligence baked in to make your phone smarter, simpler and more tailored to you,” said Sameer Samat, VP of Product Management for Android & Google Play on the company blog. “Today we’re officially introducing Android 9 Pie.

“We’ve built Android 9 to learn from you—and work better for you—the more you use it. From predicting your next task so you can jump right into the action you want to take, to prioritizing battery power for the apps you use most, to helping you disconnect from your phone at the end of the day, Android 9 adapts to your life and the ways you like to use your phone.”

This is the AI dream which we have all been promised, but the industry has largely failed to deliver to date; genuine personalisation. Whether Google can live up to the bold promises remains to be seen, but the world is changing in the right way.

For AI to be moderately successful in terms of personalisation and acting in an intuitive manner, the assistant has to be used. It’s all about data which is local and specific to the user, allowing the power of machine learning technology to adapt platforms and services. The last couple of months have seen users become more accustomed and comfortable with the idea, which sets the scene for the reality which has been built up in our minds.

There are of course the more complicated aspects of the AI, such as predicting your next task or managing diaries, but the simpler ideas are the ones which users might find the most useful in the first instance. Adaptive battery performance, or adaptive screen brightness are two features which will improve the performance of devices. Users might not even know any changes have taken place, but there is the potential to enhance the digital experience.

Of course, adapting the experience to the individual user is the image of AI which we have in our minds, and Google claims this is now possible. App Actions uses context and displays to predict what apps the user might want to use next, such as a news app is the smartphone detects you are on the way to the tube at 8am on a Tuesday morning. It might not be a gamechanger, but incremental steps forward are perfect when introducing new ideas, which could be deemed potentially intrusive by some.

Simplicity is the idea for the AI, and this has been rolled out throughout the display as well. With devices changing, Android needed to adapt as well, and soon enough navigating between screens, or searching for apps will become simpler. While we only have Google’s word to take on how good the operating system is right now, we do like the look of it. The Android team do tend to strike the right balance between usability and experience very well, and this looks to be the same.

First and foremost the update will be rolled out to Pixel devices, though devices that participated in the Beta program (Sony Mobile, Xiaomi, HMD Global, Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Essential) will get the Pie treatment towards the end of the year.

And of course…

Why not have a guess at what the next Android update could be named. Next up will be Q… this could be a tricky one…

Europe hits Google with €4.3bn fine for Android antitrust violations

Google has been handed a record €4.3 billion by the European Commission, with the bureaucrats claiming the search giant abused the dominant position of Android to bully consumers into using its search engine.

The European Commission, hereafter known as the Gaggle of Red-tapers, has given Google 90 days to end the activities, or face non-compliance payments of up to 5% of the average daily worldwide turnover of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Google has been bundling its search engine and Chrome apps into the operating system, with the Gaggle also claiming it blocked manufacturers from creating devices that run forked versions of Android, and also making payments to manufacturers and telcos to ensure exclusivity on devices.

“Today, mobile internet makes up more than half of global internet traffic,” said Chief Competition Gaggler, Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. “It has changed the lives of millions of Europeans.

“Our case is about three types of restrictions that Google has imposed on Android device manufacturers and network operators to ensure that traffic on Android devices goes to the Google search engine. In this way, Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine. These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules.”

The three issues here are as follows:

  • Manufacturers are required to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store, which manufacturers confirmed was a ‘must have’ feature as part of the investigation
  • Payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices
  • Prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling devices running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google, known as Android Forks

EC Google antitrust diagram

Google will of course appeal the fine, and will likely use its own legal might to tie the Gaggle up in more red-tape than the boresome bureaucrats ever thought possible, but this is a notable decision. Not only has the European Commission come to the conclusion Android has a dominant position in the European market, some 80% of smartphone run on the OS, but it has determined Google actively sought to inhibit competition, and therefore negatively impact the experience and choice of the consumer.

One of the conclusions Google has found issue with is the competition between Android and Apple’s iOS. The Gaggle has decided the two are not competing with each other, due to the fact Apple devices are not tailored towards the low-end of the market, therefore Android maintains a monopoly over poorer demographics and regions. The Gaggle also notes there is a ‘cost’ to switching to iOS, including loss of data, contacts, and having to learn how to use a new OS, which counts against the search giant. Google disagrees with this point, even quoting the Gaggle’s own research that suggests 89% of respondents believe the two OS’ compete.

Another important aspect to note is the openness of Android. This is an additional bugbear of the Gaggle, pointing towards the limited opensource nature of the OS as a negative, though Google contends this point. Should Android be make more open to developers and users, the fragmentation in the ecosystem could be boggling. Google argue it needs to maintain control to ensure consistency and experience. This argument is less clear cut, as there are positives and negative outcomes on both sides.

“To be successful, open-source platforms have to painstakingly balance the needs of everyone that uses them. History shows that without rules around baseline compatibility, open-source platforms fragment, which hurts users, developers and phone makers,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post. “Android’s compatibility rules avoid this, and help make it an attractive long-term proposition for everyone.”

Overall, this is of course not a new argument. The European Commission found fault with Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with its Window OS in years gone, while Google has constantly been under the microscope in Belgium. The Gaggle does not seem comfortable with the idea of relaying revenues to other aspects of the ecosystem, a business model which is becoming more common in the digital era.

For a service to be free, there has to be a value exchange. As it stands, device manufacturers get an Android licence for free under the condition Google products are set as default. Google spends an unknown amount every year to ensure Android is the best OS on the market, and monetizes the experience through its search engine. Should it be proven Google is operating illegally, the practise should be adjusted, but we would argue there would be detrimental impact to the consumer should it be stopped completely.

The only other alternative is to charge the device manufacturers for the right to use Android. We suspect this will never happen, but we have no doubt this expense would be passed onto the consumer, who will probably end up using Google anyway as the search engine is arguably the best on the market.

The payments to manufacturers and telcos is not the most above-board business we’ve ever come across, and perhaps preventing the development of Forks is suspect, though this point is much more nuanced; Google is rightly claiming fragmentation of the OS and applications would impact experience. That said, we don’t have too much of an issue with the conditional bundling of other services with the Play Store and Android OS; Google has to make money after all; it doesn’t offer software as a charity.

The European Commission will continue to argue the dominant position of Google will impact innovation, though the Google party line can be summed up pretty simply; its helping develop the ecosystem:

“The free distribution of the Android platform, and of Google’s suite of applications, is not only efficient for phone makers and operators – it’s of huge benefit for developers and consumers,” said Pichai. “If phone makers and mobile network operators couldn’t include our apps on their wide range of devices, it would upset the balance of the Android ecosystem. So far, the Android business model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone makers for our technology, or depend on a tightly controlled distribution model.”

The outcome of this saga is unlikely to be known for months. Google’s lawyers will do everything possible to complicate the situation, lobbyists will be charged and the PR machine will start cranking, but there is the potential to have a very fundamental impact on the industry. Will Google bow to demands and lose its grip on search? Could it start charging a license fee Android? Or might it just say screw everyone else and keep Android exclusively for its own Pixel devices in Apple-esque style?