EU is reportedly investigating if Google Assistant is being forced on Android phones
The European Commission is reportedly investigating whether or not Google is forcing Android device makers to ship Google Assistant on smartphones.
According to a report from MLex (via Reuters), EU regulators have asked multiple unnamed device makers to provide evidence that they have been forced by Google to make Google Assistant the default voice assistant service on Android devices. In a statement to Reuters, Google said that “manufacturers can choose which voice assistants to install on their devices and users can also choose which assistants to use and install.”
The European Commission, on the other hand, declined to comment to Reuters and instead referred to EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager’s news conference in June during which the Commission said it received complaints about alleged exclusivity and tying practices related to voice assistants. These practices preclude producers of smart devices from simultaneously operating multiple, competing voice assistants on a device, an act that Sonos has previously drawn attention to.
The Commission will issue a final report on its sector inquiry in the first half of 2022, which is when it may open formal investigations into Google if it believes that the company has engaged in anti-competitive behavior.
Mishaal’s take: It’s no secret that Google mandates the inclusion of many of its applications on Android devices. In order to ship an Android device with the Google Play Store (Android’s largest app market) and Google Play Services (an application that provides key APIs and services to millions of other applications), device makers must sign certain agreements, have their devices pass certain tests, and agree to preinstall a handful of other Google apps. The bundle of applications that OEMs must agree to ship on their devices is called Google Mobile Services (GMS), though there are multiple GMS bundles with more or fewer Google apps. In Europe, OEMs are not required to ship Chrome and Search — contained within the Google App — with the rest of the GMS bundle following an earlier ruling by the European Commission. However, there are clear financial benefits for most OEMs to license these apps anyway, as it lets Google do the heavy lifting in developing a web browser and search engine and lets users access the most ubiquitous browser and search engine right from their home screen.
The choice screen for general search providers shown on all Android devices shipped within the EEA.
If an OEM signs a Search license on top of signing an EMADA — or European Mobile Application Distribution Agreement — then they can preload the Google App on devices sold within the European Economic Area (EEA). And if they elect to do so, then they must comply with the rest of the GMS requirements. One of these requirements — outlined in section 5.1 of a copy of the GMS Requirements document XDA viewed — states that if the Google App is preloaded, then it MUST be set as the default Assistant app. This means that all devices that have the Google App preloaded are required to set Google Assistant as the default voice assistant service. Google further states that the default Assistant service — ie., the company’s own Google Assistant — must be invoked when the user performs a long-press of the home button or swipes diagonally through a gesture. It is this requirement that the European Commission likely takes issue with, though we won’t know for sure until the Commission actually discloses details of this investigation.
Although Samsung phones invoke the company’s Bixby voice assistant upon a long-press of the power button, Bixby is not actually the default voice assistant on Samsung devices. Samsung phones still have Google Assistant set as the default voice assistant component, at least that’s the case with the phones sold in the U.S. that we checked. Google’s GMS Requirements document never explicitly states that a long-press of the power button should invoke the default assistant, which is possibly why Samsung is able to set that gesture to launch its own Bixby service. However, Google is making the long-press power button gesture in Android 12 invoke the default Assistant, and we’ll have to wait and see if they’re going to require OEMs to do the same. If so, then it’s possible Samsung’s Android 12 update will invoke the Google Assistant on a long-press of the power button rather than Bixby.
While it’s true that OEMs are allowed to ship multiple voice assistants on their devices (see: Samsung and Bixby), and users are able to change the default assistant service after setup, the power of defaults results in most users never switching away from or trying anything other than Google Assistant. Whether or not the European Commission will rule against Google remains to be seen, but the case is certainly not as straightforward as Google implies.