A hot potato: In a move that seems far-reaching even for Google, it has been alleged that the company can revoke its Android license across all of a manufacturer's devices if just one of then runs a forked version of Android. It has reportedly used this leverage to keep its thumb on Amazon's attempts to gain a foothold in the smart TV market with its Fire TV platform.
According to a report from tech blog Protocol, Google has been using its Android licensing agreement to stifle competition from Amazon. Sources say that the current licensing agreement for the Android TV operating system prevents manufacturers from using "forked versions" such as Amazon's Fire TV.
What's more, if the OEM breaks the agreement, Google can revoke the Android license of any device the manufacturer produces. In other words, if Samsung made a smart TV using Amazon Fire, Google could not only disallow the use of the Play Store and Google apps on the televisions but on Samsung's phones as well.
"They cannot do Android TV and Fire TV simultaneously," said a senior insider from an unnamed "major TV manufacturer. "It basically blocked Amazon."
Considering that Google has partnerships with about 60 percent of the top smart-TV market and over 140 cable providers worldwide, this is a big deal. Google has faced flack from mobile regulators over such agreements in the past, but this is the first time it has come to light that it is pinching off smart-TV competition.
Protocol reached out to Google, but the search giant declined to comment on the matter. Likewise, officials with Amazon's Fire TV division refused to discuss the subject.
The section of Google's Android agreement that is raising the issue is referred to as the "Android Compatibility Commitment," formerly known as the "Anti-Fragmentation Agreement." It is a confidential set of rules that makers of Android devices agree to in order to gain access to the Google Play Store.
The policies are to ensure that one Android app will work properly on any device. While developers are allowed to tweak Android's open-source operating system, they must still abide by the compatibility guidelines. However, forked versions are not allowed. These are platforms like Fire TV that are not compatible with the "Google-sanctioned" version of Android.
The strange thing is that manufacturers who have products in different sectors have to comply across the board. In other words, if they have a compliant version of Android for mobile devices, they cannot put a noncompliant version like Fire TV on their televisions.
"You cannot manufacture any of those noncompliant devices," said the anonymous source. "It's completely unique [from other agreements in the industry]."
This is not the first time that Google's compatibility policies have raised eyebrows. In 2016, EU regulators launched an antitrust investigation alleging that the company used the agreement to prevent OEMs wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling devices running forked versions of Android. It ultimately issued a fine in 2018 of €4.34 billion ($5.06 billion), which Google has appealed.
No regulatory actions have occurred regarding the use of this policy in the smart TV sector, but until now, it has been more or less an open secret among manufacturers. We'll have to see if the FTC or other antitrust officials take action.