Open War for Open Android: Antitrust for Cyanogen?

Open War for Open Android: Antitrust for Cyanogen?

Android and openness is something we talk about all the time, but the recent developments in the industry point towards inherent flaws with this very premise. Be it from bloggers, political institutions or corporations, Android is seemingly not open enough. The “War on Openness” is ironically becoming an open war, where many players are increasing their stakes and scope to try and land a bigger hold – or at the very least, restrict Google’s – on what is the world’s most popular mobile OS. We don’t say this lightly, either, as Android’s 81 percent market share achieved through last year’s 1 billion shipped phones means business.

To us at XDA, Android is extremely open – I need to make this distinction before we go further – as those with knowledge on how to flash mods, tweaks or ROMs can have an even bigger say on what’s on their phone. To those who lack the skills, however, Android is very much pre-packaged. While users can access the Google Play Store to download a plethora of apps, the service is run by Google and it offers privileges (be it through Google Services software or actual services) with which other developers can not compete. This being said, even a Galaxy smartphone with all its prepackaged bloatware has more freedom than, say, an iPhone.

Another clarification I want to make before we go deeper in this is that when we talk about freedom in Android’s openness we don’t mean options. Sure, the decision space of a scenario can offer more or fewer options for you to follow. But ultimately, liberty comes from the ability to choose without constraints, not the amount of options given to you. A simple example would be iOS apps, particularly back when their App Store trumped Android’s – more, better apps meant more and better options to choose from but not necessarily more freedom within the decisions. With this said, the decision space is limited (be it by lack of knowledge or software obstacles) to the stock functionality of a given phone, unless there is knowledge of sideloading or disabling apps. For most Android handsets, however, the liberty to choose remains.

Antitrust & Google

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 10.40.28 PMThis week, headlines had it that Google was seeing some trouble with the European Union in regards to unfair market strategies. To be more specific, the EU’s Antitrust chief accused Google of manipulating its web search results for financial gains within the company and its partnerships. This is of utmost importance to the EU given that Google dominates web searches in the region with a hold of 90 percent of users. The European Commission’s investigation issued charges (Statements of Objections) that if objected would cost Google upwards of €6 billion. Mediation is not finished, and Google did try to defend itself in a blog post, but the black stain will remain.

While this made for global news, the direct impact on smartphone users is the Commission’s investigation of Android. They claim that Google used its dominant position to get OEMs to pre-install Google applications on smartphones, and that this represents unfair treatment to the rest of the market (especially given Android’s open-source nature). Google claims that smartphone makers do so voluntarily, and in many ways this is a believable statement given the predominance of Google services in mobile. But regardless, if it’s proven that Google does transgress the region’s regulations with antitrust practices the whole market could shift by allowing other players to have a much bigger presence of Android. Given the latest developments with Cyanogen, this is worth looking into. Did Google engage in anti-competitivity?

Defensive Google

With the Android investigation announcement, Google was quick (very quick) to issue yet another blogpost where it tries to defend itself. This post is significantly different, however, as rather than trying to convince readers that Google did no harm, it’s more of a praise of how open and diverse the Android ecosystem is. The post is also significantly less focused than the previous defense which rebutted claims convincingly. In this post, Google explains their mobile OS this way:

  • It’s an open-source operating system that can be used free-of-charge by anyone—that’s right, literally anyone. And it’s not just phones. Today people are building almost anything with Android—including tablets, watches, TVs, cars, and more. Some Android devices use Google services, and others do not.
  • Our Google Play store contains over one million apps and we paid out over $7 billion in revenue over the past year to developers and content publishers.
  • Apps that compete directly with Google such as Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft Office, and Expedia are easily available to Android users. Indeed many of these apps come pre-loaded onto Android devices in addition to Google apps. The recent Samsung S6 is a great example of this, including pre-installed apps from Facebook, Microsoft, and Google.
  • Developers have a choice of platforms and over 80% of developers are building apps for several different mobile operating systems.

Keep in mind that all of these things are true, but none of them tackle the original claim that Google might be using anti-competitive coercion behind the scenes to get Google apps pre-installed in OEM devices. And in the past, we’ve seen a lot of drama regarding these Mobile Application Distribution Agreements (MADAs). In fact, a popular class-action lawsuit was filed last year in regards to how Google apps have special placement.  The basic idea is (supposedly) that if an OEM wants to package a Google app, they must include all of Google’s apps and Google Services. The lawsuit also suggested direct bidding taking place to “subsidize” OEM phones in exchange for pre-installing Google apps.

The Google-Samsung MADA originally published by re/code and effective as of January 2011 shows that there was something going on, and there might be still.. It reads:

“Unless otherwise approved by Google in writing: (1) Company will preload all Google Applications approved in the applicable Territory or Territories on each Device; (2) Google Phone-top Search and the Android Market Client icon must be placed at least on the panel immediately adjacent to the Default Home Screen; (3) all other Google Applications will be placed no more than one level below the Phone on the Device; and (4) Google Phone-top Search must be set as the default search provider for all search access points on the Device. Notwithstanding the foregoing, there are no placement requirements for Optional Google Applications,”

Cyanogen in an Open War

Cyanogen’s remarks against Google’s Android have circled Android headlines for a while now, and with the latest funding rounds that the company has gone through, the company is seemingly ready for prime-time. We’ve detailed the intricate war assets that make Cyanogen such a threat to the future of Google’s hold in a previous feature, where we talked about their investors, their OS, their users & developers and most importantly their vision. Cyanogen believes that Android in its present form is not open enough – they have the conception that Google is a sort of “tyrant” holding Android back with their proprietary services. Plenty of manufacturers do not allow you to uninstall Google apps – simply disable them, which ties in with the previously mentioned MADAs.

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 10.33.58 PMIn plenty of our previous coverage, we’ve held a skeptic position regarding Cyanogen and their claims. It is true that their solutions are typically more “open” than other OEMs’, and they are very committed to offering liberty and options in their CyanogenMod ROMs, be it through customization, support or simply contributing to the developer community. However, the corporation has had its fair share of questionable actions, and with the latest funding rounds and partnerships, they are getting “in bed” with some of the biggest corporations in key sectors of the industry like hardware (Qualcomm), telecommunications (Telefónica), social media (Twitter) and now Microsoft.

Patron Microsoft, Ally Boxer

This is where Cyanogen’s tales becomes a little dubitable: the deal specifies that Microsoft apps will come bundled within Cyanogen OS (manufacturer ROM, not the custom ROM we all love) and Cyanogen will allow deeper and “native” integration of Microsoft services in the operating system. The good news is reports have it that the bundled apps will be completely uninstallable if you so desire, and you can always put Google apps back in there too. But regardless, this shows that favoritisms will still exist within Cyanogen phones, and further on, they might develop into something different… especially considering Microsoft is involved. (As a side note, isn’t it “weird” how the partnership was announced so shortly after we learned that Google is in trouble for not opening up Android enough? Hmm, I wonder…)


I spy with my little eye

Microsoft is expanding inside of Android by bringing many of its services and applications to the platform as well as further (and blatantly) promoting them within them. Knowing Microsoft, this is not simply an attempt at better sales: their expansion is something we begun exploring a while ago, and we believe there’s something going on behind the scenes. But when it comes to tangible suspicions, Microsoft has been under the microscope for their software security, especially after the massive ‘vulnerabilities’ (one which included Microsoft servers being the middle-man to all private e-mail exchanges) found in their recent Outlook for Android & iOS release. Regarding the situation, here’s a quote on the matter from IBM developer Winkelmeyer:

“What I saw was breathtaking. A frequent scanning from an AWS IP to my mail account. Means Microsoft stores my personal credentials and server data (luckily I’ve used my private test account and not my company account) somewhere in the cloud! They haven’t asked me. They just scan. So they have in theory full access to my PIM data, (…)”


“Data is open too!”

This raised some eyebrows, and new concerns lay with a partnership between Cyanogen and Boxer, a company that is now powering up the default e-mail solution in Cyanogen OS. We took a look at their privacy policy and found that they may collect unspecified kinds of data by scanning your inbox contents… and then distribute them within the company, with affiliates or “trusted” third parties… so potentially Microsoft too. Like XDA Portal Editor Matthew pointed out, at least we know that Google collects our data, and we willingly agree to the notion. This is trying to fly under the radar undisclosed, which once again shows Cyanogen’s shady cloak & dagger tactics. Yet in Boxer’s open letter we find the following blatantly ironic excerpt:

The launch of our partnership with Cyanogen marks a major shift in the mobile landscape. No longer are users forced to use second-class software or services that further the agenda of the companies behind their platforms (…) Users now have a choice – an open operating system in Cyanogen that is bringing best in class products and services together to form a single cohesive platform.”

Open War

The war for an Open Android is not limited to Google and Cyanogen, and we can expect to see many other players hop in soon. But right now, the biggest armies in this battle are these two’s. I tried to objectively show that both companies are surrounded by tactics that do not really aspire one’s uttermost confidence in them, but while both claim to have or offer an “Open Android”, the truth is both of them don’t. Both Google and Cyanogen offer virtually identical decision spaces and almost equal liberty in their Android offerings, but this doesn’t quite mean that their Android’s are as “open” as they want it to be. Google’s Android is not open, and neither is Cyanogen’s Android. What is open is Android in itself, the platform, and not what the companies want it to be.

android-openThe foundations of Android allow for this liberty, decision space and openness, and it is only when the project is tainted with corporate agendas that it loses that last bit. Ultimately, both Google and Cyanogen constrict Android, but not necessarily negatively. Google’s Android is, to me, a brilliant piece of software largely because of Google services. While I know the difference between the purest of Android and the experience I am accustomed to, things like Google Now are intuitively and intrinsically Android in my mind now. I am sure many of you use Google services as much as we do, even on your custom ROMs that may not even come with them pre-installed. Cyanogen’s vision of Android is noble, but in a Theory of Forms sort of way… and like many ideas, the physical manifestation is subjected to corporate greed and vice, and it ultimately gets tainted. This is what might be happening to Cyanogen now that they are dependent (or rather, “lobbied”) by these huge companies.

Going back to the MADAs: Google is probably not playing fair. In fact, the behind-the-scenes and less-than-noble coercion shows that Google is not willing to battle in an open and fair landscape… or at the very least it shows paranoia and fear that manufacturers would abandon them. Both of these traits as well as the tactics displayed are typical of an authoritarian regime, so in this regard Cyanogen’s claim of a tyrannic Google might have some semblance of truth. However, it is undeniable that the Google experience on Android is one that people love, and while Google might not be the most trustworthy in regards to data mining and partnerships either, Cyanogen’s approach to business leaves too much to be desired.

To round things up: Google’s anti competitivity is neither justified nor noble, but neither is Cyanogen’s outspoken remarks about Google – not when they are effectively doing the same, just with a simpler “remove” button in their app manager menu. Moreover, Google’s best interests are on Android while we can’t say the thing about Microsoft which became Cyanogen’s most notable (and notorious) partner. The war for an open Android is now an open war, and nobody knows what will come out of it. The next few years will be full of interesting developments, especially if the Android investigation and further accusations manage to regulate Google’s Android and further open it up for a more leveraged playing field. This being said, I personally picked my side.

Did you?



Featured image by Aurich Lawson

About author

Mario Tomás Serrafero
Mario Tomás Serrafero

Mario developed his love for technology in Argentina, where a flagship smartphone costs a few months of salary. Forced to maximize whatever device he could get, he came to know and love XDA. Quantifying smartphone metrics and creating benchmarks are his favorite hobbies. Mario holds a Bachelor's in Mathematics and currently spends most of his time classifying cat and dog pictures as a Data Science graduate student.