Can Android makers ship devices that run Android forks? It’s a tough and scary question for OEMs to ask, and Google probably liked it that way. The contracts Android OEMs sign with Google, which are required to license the Play Store and other Google apps, say categorically “no forks”. Google claims that forking Android would harm the Android ecosystem, so OEMs must pledge never to be involved in the production of a device that runs a fork of Android. Some regulators, especially in the EU, have ruled that the “no fork” clause in the Android contract is not legal and that Google cannot punish OEMs for straying from the walled garden. The EU doesn’t control the whole world, however, while Google can’t punish manufacturers inside the EU, what happens in the rest of the world?
Google’s anti-fork clause has always been a big deal for Amazon, whose Fire OS is the #1 Android fork. With most major tech makers involved in phone production in one way or another , tablets, TVs, laptops, cars or Android watches, Amazon has always had to scratch and scratch to find someone willing to make Fire devices. Amazon complained about this to India’s Competition Commission last week, saying: “At least seven OEMs have indicated that their ability to enter into such a manufacturing relationship with Amazon is either entirely blocked or significantly limited (for example, in terms of geographic coverage) by their contractual commitments to Google.” India is Android’s biggest market, so any decision will be worth considering.
A new report from Protocol’s Janko Roettgers says Google is giving in to this restriction, at least for TVs. The report says Google and Amazon have “reached a deal” allowing Android makers to make TVs running Fire TV OS, and that TCL, Xiaomi and Hisense will offer products in both ecosystems. TCL has already announced the lovingly named “CF63K Fire TV Series” – 4K, 60Hz Fire TV displays with Amazon Alexa. The company also makes sets with Android TV and Roku software. Xiaomi, a loyal Android OEM, also announced a Fire TV in May.
Google’s agreements with manufacturers are confidential, so it’s been many years since we looked at exactly what manufacturers consistently agree to. Generally, however, the story goes that the Android platform code base is open source, and Google apps are not. Makers who want to build a viable product all need access to the Play Store, all the core APIs locked into Play Services, and killer Google apps like YouTube and Google Maps. These apps (and the Android name, a trademark of Google) must all be licensed, and that license contains an “anti-fragmentation” agreement that prohibits manufacturers from getting involved with any device that isn’t running an approved version. by Google. of Android. If a manufacturer builds a forked device and violates this contract, Google may revoke its Google Application License and kick it out of the Android ecosystem. The Competition Commission of India’s investigation reiterates many of these points, but unfortunately all the juicy bits are redacted.
Although the makers have apparently got Google’s approval to make devices for a competitor, Google is still keeping things murky. The memorandum states that “officially, Google’s position remains unchanged,” and the company provided a statement indicating that these anti-fragmentation rules are still in place. However, the rules are clearly not in place and Google has been ordered by the EU not to put them in place. Xiaomi and TCL Fire TVs are advertised only for Europe, so maybe Google is going with different rules for different locations. The proof will be in which devices are delivered to which countries.
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