An unlikely warning

Illustration by Alex Castro

The EU’s decision to force Google to unbundle its Chrome and search apps from Androidmay have some implications for the future of Android’s free business model. In a blog post defending Google’s decision to bundle search and Chrome apps on Android, Google CEO Sundar Pichai outlines the company’s response to the EU’s $5 billion fine. Pichai highlights the fact a typical Android user will “install around 50 apps themselves” and can easily remove preinstalled apps. But if Google is prevented from bundling its own apps, that will upset the Android ecosystem.

“If phone makers and mobile network operators couldn’t include our apps on their wide range of devices, it would upset the balance of the Android ecosystem,” explains Pichai, carefully avoiding the fact that phone makers will no longer be forced to bundle these apps but can still choose to do so. Pichai then hints that the free Android business model has relied on this app bundling. “So far, the Android business model has meant that we haven’t had to charge phone makers for our technology, or depend on a tightly controlled distribution model,” says Pichai. “But we are concerned that today’s decision will upset the careful balance that we have struck with Android, and that it sends a troubling signal in favor of proprietary systems over open platforms.”

Pichai’s subtle talk of a “careful balance” of the Android business model will be seen as a warning shot to consumers, phone makers, and the European Commission. The EU has made no suggestions on exactly how Google should solve its app bundling violations. But it’s clear that if phone makers can bundle their own browsers instead of Chrome and point search queries toward rivals, then that could have implications for Google’s mobile ad revenue, which constitutes more than 50 percent of the company’s net digital ad revenue.

Google is warning that its Android business model could now change, and that may mean the company will need to consider licensing Android to phone makers. It’s an unlikely scenario that relies on consumers not seeking out Chrome or Google search on Android after Google’s unbundling. Given Google’s dominance in search and browsers and the popularity of its many web services, Pichai’s warning looks more like a bluff to court popular opinion than a genuine threat that Android will no longer be free.