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Google’s Confidential Android Contracts Show Rising Requirements

Google’s Confidential Android Contracts Show Rising Requirements
Illustration by Matt Vascellaro

Google for years has tweaked its search engine to promote other revenue-generating Google Web services in the search results, much to the dismay of some rival Web companies. Now, there is new evidence Google is following the same playbook with its Android mobile operating system, which has become a key vehicle to distribute its revenue-generating mobile apps on phones.

Confidential documents viewed by The Information show Google has been adding requirements for dozens of manufacturers like Samsung Electronics, Huawei Technologies and HTC that want to build devices powered by Android. Among the new requirements for many partners: increasing the number of Google apps that must be pre-installed on the device to as many as 20, placing more Google apps on the home screen or in a prominent icon folder and making Google Search more prominent.

Older Android licensing contracts have been reported on before, but The Information viewed deals made this year in order to highlight how they differ from prior ones.

Google has always called its Android mobile operating system the “open” alternative to Apple, which controls every aspect of the iPhone and iPad. Despite that rhetoric, Android’s manufacturing and wireless-carrier partners say they have long been under the impression that Google would increasingly try to generate more revenue from Android devices by promoting its services more prominently. Many also understand that Google wants more consistency in the software experience between different devices and would resist certain customizations by device makers, though there have been frequent fights about that, particularly between Google and Samsung, which is the leading maker of Android devices.

Resignation of Android Partners

Hardware makers grumble about Google “tightening the screws” on Android, which powers more than a billion active devices, but most are resigned to the fact they don’t have much choice. Other operating systems like Samsung’s Tizen OS, Mozilla’s Web-based Firefox OS, Microsoft’s Windows Phone and a version of Android maintained by Cyanogen still have relatively small distribution.

And while some sections of Android licensing contracts, such as the part about Google-app preload requirements, have swelled, one person involved in negotiations with Google at a major Android device maker said that overall, “It’s not much worse than it was before, but it’s not better either.” Google hasn’t dropped any requirements, but the agreements vary from partner to partner, and some are able to negotiate exceptions to certain rules.

The Google Android unit, led by Hiroshi Lockheimer, must walk a tightrope as it tries to extract more revenue from Android while helping hardware partners compete with Apple.

The Android contracts, which are now often signed by Mr. Lockheimer, are being reviewed by antitrust regulators in Europe. Authorities there are trying to settle separate allegations related to Google Search. Critics argue that Google “tying” its apps together so that Android’s partners must accept all or none of them is bad for competition; those partners might want to promote a bunch of competing apps, and there’s only so much real estate on a phone screen. (For more on why Google’s Android contracts are inviting an antitrust case, read this article.)

A Google spokesman did not have comment for this article. The company has said Android device manufacturers and wireless carriers are free to preload apps that compete with Google’s apps, and many have done so.

Inside the Android Contracts

Android is an open-source project, meaning anyone can use the software. Firms like Alibaba and Amazon, for instance, have used Android to power smartphones without a deal with Google, though they haven’t made much headway with consumers.

For companies like Samsung, Lenovo Group and Xiaomi that want to build an Android phone that runs the latest version of Android and includes popular Google services—including the all-important Google Play app store—they need to sign a contract, known as Mobile Application Distribution Agreement (MADA). As part of the MADA process, Google also requires companies to sign “anti-fragmentation” agreements so that they don’t distribute devices that are powered by a version of Android that isn’t compatible with the version distributed by Google. The contracts also help ensure that key apps like Uber and Yelp, many of which embed Google Maps or other Google technology, function normally on the devices. 

A general theme has emerged: Google is finding new ways to integrate more of its services into Android and, in particular, to direct device owners to use Google Search.

For one manufacturer, between 2011 and 2014, the MADA contract’s section on “placement requirements” for Google’s pre-loaded applications tripled in length, and the number of required Google consumer apps on the phone jumped from nine to roughly 20. In the earlier contract, Google asked the manufacturer to place a Google search bar and its Android Market app store “at least on the panel immediately adjacent to the default home screen” and seven other Google applications including Gmail and YouTube would need to be “no more than one level below” the “phone top,” or the top most screen from which apps can be launched. And, of course, the Google search app “must be set as the default search provider for all Web search access points on the Device.”

This year, the signed agreement said there must be a Google search “widget” on the “default home screen” of the device, along with an icon for the Google Play app store. It said an icon on the device home screen labeled as “Google,” when clicked, must provide access to a “collection” of 13 Google apps (Google Chrome, Google Maps, Google Drive, YouTube, Gmail, Google+, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, Google Play Books, Google Play Newsstand, Google Play Games, Google+ Photos and Google+ Hangouts). The newer agreement also specified the order in which this collection of apps must be listed, from left to right and top to bottom within the Google icon. Several other Google apps, including Google Street View, Google Voice Search and Google Calendar, must be placed “no more than one level below the Home Screen,” the agreement says. (Device owners can manually change the location of icons on their own.)

Google’s ‘Hot’ Words

For one manufacturer, the 2014 MADA agreement with Google, like the one three years earlier, says Google Search is also the default provider of all “search access points.” But the new agreement expanded those points to include “assist”- and “voice search”-related actions. Assist is another word for virtual assistant like Google Now or Apple’s Siri.

Another change: In the 2014 contract, Google stakes a claim to technology on phones that allows people to say words aloud that trigger an action on the device. For example, phones made by Motorola and others allow you to say “OK Google Now,” followed by commands like “call cab company” or “send a message” to a friend, even if the screen is turned off.

In the new contract, Google requires partners to follow new guidelines involving “hotwords,” or voice-activated triggers that cause a phone to take an action. If the Android device has such a features it “must implement” Google’s hotword, should the company provide one to the manufacturer, the agreement says. It’s unclear whether Google has already provided hotwords to manufacturers or whether this requirement just lays the groundwork for that. The latest version of Google’s mobile search app includes the hotword functionality and is triggered when the device user says aloud, “OK Google,” no matter what is on the screen.

Another new clause in the MADA contracts says any time a Web page is launched within a mobile app, it must be “rendered” by a Google open-source technology called “Google WebView Component.” (One major app that includes Web pages is LinkedIn.) It’s unclear whether this requirement gives Google any sort of business advantage in the long run.

A 2014 MADA contract also says that if device owners hold down the physical “Home” button or “swipe up” from a digital home button or navigation bar, such actions should trigger Google Search. The agreement also gives Google the option to display a “Google trademark” or an “Android brand feature” on a “separate screen” when the device boots up.

Beyond the MADA contracts, if a device manufacturer or wireless carrier wants a cut of the revenue Google generates from Google Search or Google Play on the device, it must sign an additional agreement. As The Information previously reported, those agreements now typically preclude partners from pre-installing Web-search apps like Bing or Yahoo Search that compete with Google Search. (Those apps are still available for manual download by the device owner.) There are also some restrictions regarding preloading app stores that compete with Google Play.

Some of the most prominent Android partners and wireless carriers, including Samsung and Softbank, have such revenue-sharing agreements with Google, whereas smaller device makers typically don’t