The idea that Google’s Android mobile software is both “free” and open-source is so often repeated that it is virtually an article of faith online. There’s only one problem: neither is strictly true.
While the basic Android software is indeed available for free, and can be downloaded, compiled and changed by anyone, it doesn’t include the apps that make up Google’s mobile services - such as Maps, Gmail, and crucially Google Play, which allows people to connect to the online store where they can download apps.
Without them, a device has only minimal functionality.
To get the key apps, a manufacturer needs a “Google Mobile Services” (GMS) licence. Just like Microsoft with Windows and Windows Phone, GMS licences are charged on a per-device basis - so that for example a company looking to ship 100,000 units of a tablet would have to pay about US$75,000, a source in the Android device community told the Guardian.
Google activates more than 1 million devices with GMS licences every day
That suggests a per-device revenue of 75 cents, compared to the $15 or so Microsoft is believed to charge for Windows Phone licences. With Google activating more than a million devices with GMS licences every day, that suggests that Android licensing generates less than $100m per quarter - minuscule compared with Google’s revenues of $13.7bn in the third quarter of 2013.
The source said Google was being intentionally vague about the fact that it receives a licence payment for every device that runs Android with its services. “It is a lot of money they make, but you can’t see it anywhere [in Google’s accounts] because that would tarnish their ‘Android open-source’ karma,” the source said.
However, there’s no definitive price list for GMS licences; Google is understood to vary this depending on the number of devices being ordered and the size of the manufacturer or retailer. “Deals are done on an individual basis and are very opaque,” one source in the Android device community, who didn’t want to be identified, told the Guardian.
Google didn’t respond to a request for information about GMS pricing, and there is no publicly available list online.
Haphazard and time-consuming
But the process of getting GMS licences appears to be haphazard and time-consuming.
“Installing Google Play without a GMS licence is illegal,” the source said. But, they explained, Google “don’t have the internal manpower to police it properly. It’s a volume game. Big OEMs [device manufacturers] pay. Smaller OEMs don’t register in Google’s radar, and they [Google] tend to turn a blind eye. Retailers get pressured by legal OEMs to make sure illegal installs of GMS are weeded out. It’s almost like crowdsourcing.”
That “crowdsourcing” seems to have been KMS Components’ downfall. Argos complained to the Welsh company that the MyTablet which it had provided did not have a GMS licence. This was after Argos had publicly promoted the tablet as excitement about a “tablet Christmas” ramped up following Tesco’s announcement in September that it would sell its Hudl 7in tablet.
Although Google could take out injunctions to prevent retailers selling unlicensed tablets that include GMS, there’s no record of it ever having done so. However in August 2010 Augen Electronics, the maker of a $150 tablet being sold through the giant American retail chain Kmart, abruptly withdrew it from sale there because it included “unauthorised versions” of the GMS suite.
Separately, trial documents released from a dispute between Google and Skyhook, a provider of location services, in 2011 revealed internal emails in which Dan Morrill of Google told another staffer that it’s “obvious to the OEMs that we are using [GMS] compatibility as a club to make them do what we want.” Motorola, then an independent company, told Skyhook that Android devices are “approved essentially at Google’s discretion”. Skyhook had wanted Android device makers to use its location service rather than Google’s.
Android compatibility testing is a key precursor step to being awarded a GMS licence. But such testing, and subsequently getting a licence from Google, can be a test in its own right, sources say. One described having to take the matter up with a senior Google vice-president to get the GMS licensing approved. “Smaller OEMs lose out, as they have a hard time getting the GMS licence, and therefore have little alternative but to go without it,” the source said.
Yet it is possible to bypass that. End-users can legally install the GMS suite of apps if they know how to.
The idea that Android is “open source” is partially true: the source code for the software is available online, via Google’s servers, and anyone can download it and make changes - as Amazon, for example, has done to create its own version for its Kindle line of tablets.
But unlike the vast majority of widely used open-source projects such as Linux, MySQL, PHP or Python, which welcome outside contributors, only people working inside Google can make changes that will become part of the future direction of the software. Device manufacturers who want to get the upcoming version of Android have to wait for it to become available from Google’s servers.
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