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Google still claimed to be blocking search rivals on Android, despite Europe’s antitrust action

Mobile licensing changes made by Google this fall, when it tweaked terms for OEMs wanting to license its Android smartphone platform on devices destined for the European market, don’t appear to be offering succour to search rivals — despite being triggered by an antitrust ruling intended to reset the competitive playing field.
The European Commission found the search giant guilty of anti-competitive practices related to its Android platform this summer, slapping the company with a $5BN fine. The decision required Google cease practices judged to be illegally skewing the market and do so within 90 days.
It was the second such major EC antitrust finding against Google, after last year’s Google Shopping ruling, when the company was warned that having been found dominant in search it had a “special responsibility” to avoid breaching antitrust rules in any market it plays in.
Google disputes the Commission’s findings of competitive abuse in both cases, and has lodged legal appeals.
But the nature of competition law demands action in the meanwhile, given the threat of punitive penalties for any continued breach. So in October Google responded to the Commission’s Android ruling by updating its regional compatibility agreement to provide a route for OEMs to unbundle key services from the Android OS — rather than requiring its suite of Google apps be pre-loaded for devices to get the Play Store.
However it also incorporated licensing fees for some unbundled configurations (e.g. Android + Play Store). At the same time it said it would not charge any fee to include search or Chrome. And it said it was offering incentives for OEMs to place its eponymous, market dominating search engine (and/or browser) prominently on their devices — despite one of the behaviors the Commission judged illegal being payments Google had made to certain large manufacturers and mobile carriers to exclusively pre-install Google Search.
The Commission did not prescribe specific remedies for the anticompetitive behaviours it pegged to Android — saying it’s “Google’s sole responsibility to make sure that it changes its conduct in a way that brings the infringements to an effective end”.
Though it warned it would closely monitor the company’s conduct, noting that any finding of continued non-compliance would risk fresh fines — of up to 5% of the average daily turnover of Alphabet for each day of non-compliance.
The key word there is “effective” — in terms of what the Commission is watching for.
Meanwhile Google’s dominant position in search naturally makes it the smartphone consumer’s go-to choice — which in turn means there’s a natural incentive for device makers not to ditch Google as the search default. At least for mainstream devices.
But Google’s new European licensing terms for Android appear to be piling additional pressure on OEMs not to switch even for more experimental and/or regional device launches, according to privacy-focused search engine Qwant.
The suggestion is Google’s licensing changes have essentially blocked the launch of an Android device with Qwant search rather than Google as the default.
Pay to install
Its experience suggests Google’s initial ‘remedy’ — far from delivering an “effective end” to the competitive infringements the Commission found — is actively steering OEMs away from search alternatives and rival companies.
Qwant, a French startup, launched its non-tracking search offering back in 2013, and has been on a growth tear on its home turf in recent months — winning over high profile users in the public sector as concern has risen about Silicon Valley’s intrusive grip on user data.
The French National Assembly and the French Ministry of the Armed Forces Minister announced this fall they’d switch to Qwant instead of Google as their default.
Of course the startup is still a minnow compared to Google. But it’s growing: Qwant tracks queries rather than users (given it doesn’t track people), and it says it generated 2.6BN queries in 2016; which grew to 9BN last year; and is now on track to end this year with around 18BN queries.
“So if we think about it that means that last year we were three days of Google; this year six days of Google — not so bad!” says co-founder Eric Leandri.
“In France we have now more than 6% of the market,” he continues. “In Germany something like 2%. And we are still growing. We do growth of 20% by month for the last four months. The growth in our revenue is two digit too, by month.”
Earlier this year it had been hoping to make additional regional marketshare gains by securing a deal to be pre-loaded on Android smartphones destined for European markets. A spokesman tells us it has a framework agreement with Huawei. (The Chinese Android OEM is second only to Samsung in global marketshare terms, according to analysts.)
The Commission’s antitrust ruling opened the door to this possibility, given it banned Google from prohibiting OEMs from launching non-Google approved Android forks. So after the ruling things were looking good for Qwant, with the startup on the cusp of securing a device deal for a few European countries, as Leandri tells it. 
He blames Google’s licensing changes for putting the kibosh on a launch they’d been expecting to be able to announce in November. Early that month the startup pinged us to trail forthcoming news — of “a major partnership that will allow us to accelerate in the smartphone market” — only to go silent.
A few weeks later it got in touch again to say it had had to postpone the announcement.
“We are very near to one or two deals to be by default or in the list of search engines in some Android cell phone made by a very large Asian manufacturer… Just for Europe, and just for some countries in Europe but we are talking about 10 million or 20 million of cell phones,” says Leandri now.
“And when we have won the bid against Google in October then Google start to say that in Europe you have to pay $40 for Android. So now if you install Qwant you have to pay $40 and if you install Google they give you some cash.”
“Before it was impossible to bid against Google because Google was blocking everything. Now you can — but now the solution of Google is you have to pay $40 if you don’t install Google by default with Chrome just on the bar. You know the bar that is fixed on Android. And this is again an abuse of their dominant position,” he adds.
“Because if I want, for example, 10 million smartphones, the guy has to pay $400M to Google. Do you really think they will pay $400M to Google just to install Qwant?”
Google’s rebuttal of the Commission’s antitrust finding for Android has focused on claims that its approach of free licensing combined with a bundle of Google services has generally enabled competition to thrive in the mobile app ecosystem, as well as claiming lower prices are a “classic hallmark… of robust competition”.
Yet Qwant’s experience offers a clear counterpoint, underlining how challenging it remains to try to compete with Google’s core search business when the same company also dominates the smartphone market and can just throw the levers of Android’s licensing terms to configure how much ‘appetite’ OEMs have for investing in alternative search defaults (given tiny hardware profit margins in the Android space).
After Qwant won over Huawei to building a device with its search engine in prime position, Leandri says it was Google’s changes to the licensing terms for Android that threw a spanner in the works.
“After that pressure then the manufacturer doesn’t know how to react now,” he says, confirming he believes there’s currently no chance for the device to be launched. Not without further changes to how Android operates in the market — i.e. further regulatory intervention.
“So we will work a lot with the European Commission to stop that,” he adds. “But again, again my question is why Google goes that way?”
We reached out to Google to ask about the fees it would charge an OEM wanting to launch an Android device with Google Play but without Google search as the default in Europe.
We also asked how charging a fee for Android if OEMs don’t also bundle Google services can help increase competition, per the Commission’s intention.
At the time of writing Google had not responded to our questions.
We also reached out to Huawei for comment and will update this story with any response.
Even if Qwant and Huawei get their way, and European buyers in a handful of countries are able to choose to buy an Android device with a little search localization as its differentiating out-of-the-box twist, Leandri isn’t under any illusions that a majority of consumers will still switch back to Google of their own accord — given its dominance of search.
He reckons those who’d stick with a non-Google search choice might be as low as a third or 40%. 
But his point is that, as it stands, Qwant doesn’t even have the chance to try competing against the Google Goliath on its own terms. And he argues that’s simply not fair. 
“Google has billions to make advertisement to ask people to switch, right. And they can even do advertisement on the Play Store for zero because they control the Play Store. Why they don’t come back to a normal market where we are all on the same line and they just compete with advertisement, with pushing their products, with a better proposition of value. It’s crazy, it’s crazy!” he says.
“They have 95% of the market, and on that market they expect that if they don’t have the search by default there then they don’t do money with the Play Store. This is bullshit. They do billions of euros with the app on the Play Store each year. With the 30% that they take on the apps. So this is not true. This is not true, sorry.
“So right now this is our goal and my main work actually is just to obtain the right to have a fair competition — a simple, fair competition.”
“I don’t want to dismantle Google. I don’t want Google to be fined 10BN. I don’t care. The only thing I want is to have the right to have a fair competition,” he adds.
We asked the European Commission to respond to Qwant’s experience, and for an update on its monitoring of Google’s compliance with the Android antitrust ruling.
A spokeswoman declined to comment on an individual case but we understand the Commission has been sending questionnaires to market players as part of its compliance monitoring.
It’s clear the regulator’s intention with the Android decision was to expand consumer choice by creating opportunities for competition that didn’t exist before — including for rival search and browser providers to be able to compete on the merits with Google when it comes to pre-loading their products on Android devices.
So if the Commission’s monitoring efforts confirm instances where competition is being blocked, as appears the case here with Qwant, further interventions will surely follow.
Leandri also points out that Google made much the same arguments vis-a-vis ‘fair competition’ more than a decade ago — when it called for the then computing incumbent, Microsoft, not to stand in the way of Internet upstarts by bundling MSN search into its Internet Explorer web browser. 
“The market favors open choice for search, and companies should compete for users based on the quality of their search services,” said Marissa Mayer in 2006, then Google’s vice president for search products. “We don’t think it’s right for Microsoft to just set the default to MSN. We believe users should choose.”
“I totally agree with what they say in 2006! Just exchange Microsoft for Google and that’s it!” he says now, adding: “We have to fight because there is not a lot of other way. But I stop fighting tomorrow as soon as I have a fair competition.
“I’m not waiting for the Commission to make the competition. Right now the percentage of growth that I have in France it’s not based on the Commission who has won or not. It’s based on our value proposition.”
Leandri is also president of the Open Internet Project, a European organization whose members lobby for regulatory action to rein in what they view as Google’s abusive dominance of digital markets, and which was also involved in the Google Shopping complaints — though he points out that in the Android case three of the five complainants are American. 
“We are the only European. So the problem is not only for a small startup in Europe. Who, y’know, complained because ‘Google is so cool’. And we are so dumb. And so ridiculous. But the problem is for Oracle, it’s for the Fair Search. It’s not for kids.”

Google still claimed to be blocking search rivals on Android, despite Europe’s antitrust action

Photomath raises $6 million for its math-solving app

Photomath just raised a $6 million funding round from Goodwater Capital, with Learn Capital also participating. Photomath has created a hugely successful mobile app for iOS and Android with 100 million downloads so far.
Photomath first launched at TechCrunch Disrupt London back in 2014. The company was working on text recognition technology. Photomath was just a demo app to promote that technology.
But the startup accidentally created a consumer success. The app instantly attracted millions of downloads from many desperate students willing to learn math with their phones.
Years later it is still one of the most downloaded apps in the App Store and Play Store. And the reason it’s been so successful is that it’s a simple concept.
After downloading the app, you just have to point your phone at a math problem. It can be in a book, or it can recognize your own handwriting. The app then gives you a step-by-step explanation to solve the problem.
Combining these two things is what makes Photomath useful. WolframAlpha can solve equations, and Evernote can recognize your handwriting. But nobody thought about combining these things.
Typing an equation can be hard, so it makes a ton of sense to bridge the gap between the physical world and smartphones. Before everybody started talking about augmented reality, Photomath was already taking advantage of the system-on-a-chip in your phone.
Photomath is also capable of generating graphs and supports advanced problems, such as limits, integrations, complex numbers, etc. The app solves around 1.2 billion math problems per month.

Photomath raises $6 million for its math-solving app

Google tweaks Android licensing terms in Europe to allow Google app unbundling — for a fee

Google has announced changes to the licensing model for its Android mobile operating system in Europe,  including introducing a fee for licensing some of its own brand apps, saying it’s doing so to comply with a major European antitrust ruling this summer.
In July the region’s antitrust regulators hit Google with a recordbreaking $5BN fine for violations pertaining to Android, finding the company had abused the dominance of the platform by requiring manufacturers pre-install other Google apps in order to license its popular Play app store. 
Regulators also found Google had made payments to manufacturers and mobile network operators in exchange for exclusively pre-installing Google Search on their devices, and used Play store licensing to prevent manufacturers from selling devices based on Android forks.
Google disputes the Commission’s findings, and last week filed its appeal — a legal process that could take years. But in the meanwhile it’s making changes to how it licenses Android in Europe to avoid the risk of additional penalties heaped on top of the antitrust fine.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president of platforms & ecosystems, revealed the new licensing options in a blog post published today.
Under updated “compatibility agreements”, he writes that mobile device makers will be able to build and sell Android devices intended for the European Economic Area (EEA) both with and without Google mobile apps preloaded — something Google’s same ‘compatibility’ contracts restricted them from doing before, when it was strictly either/or (either you made Android forks, or you made Android devices with Google apps — not both).
“Going forward, Android partners wishing to distribute Google apps may also build non-compatible, or forked, smartphones and tablets for the European Economic Area (EEA),” confirms Lockheimer.
However the company is also changing how it licenses the full Android bundle — which previously required OEMs to load devices with the Google mobile application suite, Google Search and the Chrome browser in order to be able to offer the popular Play Store — by introducing fees for OEMs wanting to pre-load a subset of those same apps under “a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA”.
Though Google stresses there will be no charge for using the Android platform itself. (So a pure fork without any Google services preloaded still wouldn’t require a fee.)
Google also appears to be splitting out Google Search and Chrome from the rest of the Google apps in its mobile suite (which traditionally means stuff like YouTube, the Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, although Lockheimer’s blog post does not make it clear which exact apps he’s talking about) — letting OEMs selectively unbundle some Google apps, albeit potentially for a fee, depending on the apps in question.
“[D]evice manufacturers will be able to license the Google mobile application suite separately from the Google Search App or the Chrome browser,” is what Lockheimer unilluminatingly writes.
Perhaps Google wants future unbundled Android forks to still be able to have Google Search or Chrome, even if they don’t have the Play store, but it’s really not at all clear which configurations of Google apps will be permitted under the new licensing terms, and which won’t.
“Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA. Android will remain free and open source,” Lockheimer adds, without specifying what the fees will be either. 
“We’ll also offer new commercial agreements to partners for the non-exclusive pre-installation and placement of Google Search and Chrome. As before, competing apps may be pre-installed alongside ours,” he continues to complete his trio of poorly explained licensing changes.
We’ve asked Google to clarify the various permitted and not permitted app configurations, as well as which apps will require a fee (and which won’t), and how much the fees will be, and will update this post with any response.
The devil in all those details should become clear soon though, as Google says the new licensing options will come into effect on October 29 for all new (Android based) smartphones and tablets launched in the EEA.

Google tweaks Android licensing terms in Europe to allow Google app unbundling — for a fee

Fortnite’s Android installer shipped with an Epic security flaw

Google has clapped back in tremendous fashion at Epic Games, which earlier this month decided to make the phenomenally popular Fortnite available for Android via its own website instead of Google’s Play Store. Unfortunately, the installer had a phenomenally dangerous security flaw in it that would allow a malicious actor to essentially install any software they wanted. Google wasted exactly zero time pointing out this egregious mistake.
By way of a short explanation why this was even happening, Epic explained when it announced its plan that it would be good to have “competition among software sources on Android,” and that the best would “succeed based on merit.” Everyone of course understood that what he meant was that Epic didn’t want to share the revenue from its cash cow with Google, which takes 30 percent of in-app purchases.
Many warned that this was a security risk for several reasons, for example that users would have to enable app installations from unknown sources — something most users have no reason to do. And the Play Store has other protections and features, visible and otherwise, that are useful for users.
Google, understandably, was not amused with Epic’s play, which no doubt played a part in the decision to scrutinize the download and installation process — though I’m sure the safety of its users was also a motivating factor. And wouldn’t you know it, they found a whopper right off the bat.
In a thread posted a week after the Fortnite downloader went live, a Google engineer by the name of Edward explained that the installer basically would allow an attacker to install anything they want using it.
The Fortnite installer basically downloads an APK (the package for Android apps), stores it locally, then launches it. But because it was stored on shared external storage, a bad guy could swap in a new file for it to launch, in what’s called a “man in the disk” attack.
And because the installer only checked that the name of the APK is right, as long as the attacker’s file is called “com.epicgames.fortnite,” it would be installed! Silently, and with lots of extra permissions too, if they want, because of how the unknown sources installation policies work. Not good!
Edward pointed out this could be fixed easily and in a magnificently low-key bit of shade-throwing helpfully linked to a page on the Android developer site outlining the basic feature Epic should have used.
To Epic’s credit, its engineers jumped on the problem immediately and had a fix in the works by that very afternoon and deployed by the next one. Epic InfoSec then requested Google to wait 90 days before publishing the information.
As you can see, Google was not feeling generous. One week later (that’s today) and the flaw has been published on the Google Issue Tracker site in all its… well, not glory exactly. Really, the opposite of glory. This seems to have been Google’s way of warning any would-be Play Store mutineers that they would not be given gentle handling.
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney was likewise unamused. In a comment provided to Android Central — which, by the way, predicted that this exact thing would happen — he took the company to task for its “irresponsible” decision to “endanger users.”

Epic genuinely appreciated Google’s effort to perform an in-depth security audit of Fortnite immediately following our release on Android, and share the results with Epic so we could speedily issue an update to fix the flaw they discovered.
However, it was irresponsible of Google to publicly disclose the technical details of the flaw so quickly, while many installations had not yet been updated and were still vulnerable.
An Epic security engineer, at my urging, requested Google delay public disclosure for the typical 90 days to allow time for the update to be more widely installed. Google refused. You can read it all at https://issuetracker.google.com/issues/112630336
Google’s security analysis efforts are appreciated and benefit the Android platform, however a company as powerful as Google should practice more responsible disclosure timing than this, and not endanger users in the course of its counter-PR efforts against Epic’s distribution of Fortnite outside of Google Play.

Indeed, companies really should try not to endanger their users for selfish reasons.

Fortnite’s Android installer shipped with an Epic security flaw

Google Play now makes it easier to manage your subscriptions

Mobile app subscriptions are a big business, but consumers sometimes hesitate to sign up because pausing and cancelling existing subscriptions hasn’t been as easy as opting in. Google is now addressing those concerns with the official launch of its subscription center for Android users. The new feature centralizes all your Google Play subscriptions, and offers a way for you to find others you might like to try.
The feature was first introduced at Google’s I/O developer conference in May, and recently rolled out to Android users, the company says. However, Google hadn’t formally announced its arrival until today.
Access to the subscriptions center only takes one tap – the link is directly available from the “hamburger” menu in the Play Store app.

Apple’s page for subscription management, by comparison, is far more tucked away.
On iOS, you have to tap on your profile icon in the App Store app, then tap on your name. This already seem unintuitive – especially considering that a link to “Purchases” is on this Account screen. Why wouldn’t Subscriptions be here, too? But instead, you have to go to the next screen, then scroll down to near the bottom to find “Subscriptions” and tap that. To turn any individual subscription off, you have to go to its own page, scroll to the bottom and tap “Cancel.”
This process should be more streamlined for iOS users.
In Google Play’s Subscriptions center, you can view all your existing subscriptions, cancel them, renew them, or even restore those you had previously cancelled – perfect for turning HBO NOW back on when “Game of Thrones” returns, for example.
You can also manage and update your payment methods, and set up a backup method.
Making it just as easy for consumers to get out of their subscriptions as it is to sign up is a good business practice, and could boost subscription sign-ups overall, which benefits developers. When consumers aren’t afraid they’ll forget or not be able to find the cancellation options later on, they’re more likely to give subscriptions a try.

In addition, developers can now create deep links to their subscriptions which they can distribute across the web, email, and social media. This makes it easier to direct people to their app’s subscription management page directly. When users cancel, developers can also trigger a survey to find out why – and possibly tweak their product offerings a result of this user feedback.
There’s also a new subscription discovery section that will help Android users find subscription-based apps through both curated and localized collections, Google notes.
These additional features, along with a good handful of subscription management tools for developers, were all previously announced at I/O but weren’t in their final state at the time. Google had cautioned that it may tweak the look-and-feel of the product between the developer event and the public launch, but it looks the same as what was shown before – right down to the demo subscription apps.
Subscriptions are rapidly becoming a top way for developers to generate revenue for their applications. Google says subscribers are growing at more than 80 percent year-over-year. Sensor Tower also reported that app revenue grew 35 percent to $60 billion in 2017, in part thanks to the growth in subscriptions.

Google Play now makes it easier to manage your subscriptions