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Ahead of third antitrust ruling, Google announces fresh tweaks to Android in Europe

Judhajeet Das

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Google is widely expected to be handed a third antitrust fine in Europe this week, with reports suggesting the European Commission’s decision in its long-running investigation of AdSense could land later today.

Right on cue the search giant has PRed another Android product tweak — which it bills as “supporting choice and competition in Europe”.

In the coming months Google says it will start prompting users of existing and new Android devices in Europe to ask which browser and search apps they would like to use.

This follows licensing changes for Android in Europe which Google announced last fall, following the Commission’s $5BN antitrust fine for anti-competitive behavior related to how it operates the dominant smartphone OS.

tl;dr competition regulation can shift policy and product.

Albeit, the devil will be in the detail of Google’s self-imposed ‘remedy’ for Android browser and search apps.

Which means how exactly the user is prompted will be key — given tech giants are well-versed in the manipulative arts of dark pattern design, enabling them to create ‘consent’ flows that deliver their desired outcome.

A ‘choice’ designed in such a way — based on wording, button/text size and color, timing of prompt and so on — to promote Google’s preferred browser and search app choice by subtly encouraging Android users to stick with its default apps may not actually end up being much of a ‘choice’.

According to Reuters the prompt will surface to Android users via the Play Store. (Though the version of Google’s blog post we read did not include that detail.)

Using the Play Store for the prompt would require an Android device to have Google’s app store pre-loaded — and licensing tweaks made to the OS in Europe last year were supposedly intended to enable OEMs to choose to unbundle Google apps from Android forks. Ergo making only the Play Store the route for enabling choice would be rather contradictory. (As well as spotlighting Google’s continued grip on Android.)

Add to that Google has the advantage of massive brand dominance here, thanks to its kingpin position in search, browsers and smartphone platforms.

So again the consumer decision is weighted in its favor. Or, to put it another way: ‘This is Google; it can afford to offer a ‘choice’.’

In its blog post getting out ahead of the Commission’s looming AdSense ruling, Google’s SVP of global affairs, Kent Walker, writes that the company has been “listening carefully to the feedback we’re getting” vis-a-vis competition.

Though the search giant is actually appealing both antitrust decisions. (The other being a $2.7BN fine it got slapped with two years ago for promoting its own shopping comparison service and demoting rivals’.)

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” Walker continues. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.”

Other opinions are available on those changes too.

Such as French pro-privacy Google search rival Qwant, which last year told us how those licensing changes still make it essentially impossible for smartphone makers to profit off of devices that don’t bake in Google apps by default. (More recently Qwant’s founder condensed the situation to “it’s a joke“.)

Qwant and another European startup Jolla, which leads development of an Android alternative smartphone platform called Sailfish — and is also a competition complainant against Google in Europe — want regulators to step in and do more.

The Commission has said it is closely monitoring changes made by Google to determine whether or not the company has complied with its orders to stop anti-competitive behavior.

So the jury is still out on whether any of its tweaks sum to compliance. (Google says so but that’s as you’d expect — and certainly doesn’t mean the Commission will agree.)

In its Android decision last summer the Commission judged that Google’s practices harmed competition and “further innovation” in the wider mobile space, i.e. beyond Internet search — because it prevented other mobile browsers from competing effectively with its pre-installed Chrome browser.

So browser choice is a key component here. And ‘effective competition’ is the bar Google’s homebrew ‘remedies’ will have to meet.

Still, the company will be hoping its latest Android tweaks steer off further Commission antitrust action. Or at least generate more fuzz and fuel for its long-game legal appeal.

Current EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has flagged for years that the division is also fielding complaints about other Google products, including travel search, image search and maps. Which suggests Google could face fresh antitrust investigations in future, even as the last of the first batch is about to wrap up.

The FT reports that Android users in the European economic area last week started seeing links to rival websites appearing above Google’s answer box for searches for products, jobs or businesses — with the rival links appearing above paid results links to Google’s own services.

The newspaper points out that tweak is similar to a change promoted by Google in 2013, when it was trying to resolve EU antitrust concerns under the prior commissioner, Joaquín Almunia.

However rivals at the time complained the tweak was insufficient. The Commission subsequently agreed — and under Vestager’s tenure went on to hit Google with antitrust fines.

Walker doesn’t mention these any of additional antitrust complaints swirling around Google’s business in Europe, choosing to focus on highlighting changes it’s made in response to the two extant Commission antitrust rulings.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search. In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app,” he writes.

Nor does he make mention of a recent change Google quietly made to the lists of default search engine choices in its Chrome browser — which expanded the “choice” he claims the company offers by surfacing more rivals. (The biggest beneficiary of that tweak is privacy search rival DuckDuckGo, which suddenly got added to the Chrome search engine lists in around 60 markets. Qwant also got added as a default choice in France.)

Talking about Android specifically Walker instead takes a subtle indirect swipe at iOS maker Apple — which now finds itself the target of competition complaints in Europe, via music streaming rival Spotify, and is potentially facing a Commission probe of its own (albeit, iOS’ marketshare in Europe is tiny vs Android). So top deflecting Google.

“On Android phones, you’ve always been able to install any search engine or browser you want, irrespective of what came pre-installed on the phone when you bought it. In fact, a typical Android phone user will usually install around 50 additional apps on their phone,” Walker writes, drawing attention to the fact that Apple does not offer iOS users as much of a literal choice as Google does.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones,” he adds, saying: “This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

We’ve reached out to Commission for comment, and to Google with questions about the design of its incoming browser and search app prompts for Android users in Europe and will update this report with any response.

Tech Passionate and Heavy Geek! Into Blogging world since 2014 and never looked back since then :) I am also a YouTube Video Producer and a Aspiring Entrepreneur. Founder, MyDroidDoes

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Android

YouTube TV is now available on Fire TV devices

Judhajeet Das

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Earlier this year, Google and Amazon reached an agreement to bring their streaming video apps to each other’s platforms, following years of anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior on both of their parts. Initially, the official YouTube app launched on Fire TV devices, while Prime Video launched on Chromecast and Android TV. Today, YouTube TV has also now become available on Fire TV devices, including Fire TV-powered televisions, Amazon announced.

In a blog post, the company says the official YouTube TV app will launch on Fire TV Stick (2nd Generation), Fire TV Stick 4K, the all-new Fire TV Cube, plus Toshiba, Insignia, Element, and Westinghouse brand Fire TV Edition Smart TVs. It will also be supported on some previous generation Fire TV devices, including the Fire TV Cube (1st Gen), Fire TV (2nd Gen), Fire TV (3rd Gen — Pendant Design).

However, the app will not run on the 1st Gen Fire TV or Fire TV Stick.

YouTube TV is Google’s live TV streaming service, and a rival to Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now (recently rebranded as AT&T TV NOW), and others. It offers over 70 channels from networks like Discovery, TNT, CNN, ESPN, FX and on-demand programming, as well as an unlimited cloud DVR. This year, it also had an exclusive range of MLB game broadcasts.

youtube tv on fire tv 2

Amazon and Google had been at war for years, making things difficult for their end users. Amazon banned Google hardware from its shopping site on a number of occasions. They also feuded in 2017 over Amazon’s implementation of a YouTube player on its Echo Show, which Google said it did without consultation. YouTube pulled Amazon’s access, then Amazon worked around the problem by sending Echo users to the YouTube homepage instead.

While the companies battled, consumers lost out. And in the case of companies like Amazon and Google, those customer bases tend to overlap. A Chromecast user will want to watch Prime Video or buy Google products from Amazon. A FireTV user wants to watch YouTube. And so on.

As a result, the more neutral platform Roku became the most popular streaming platform in the U.S.

At the time of the original agreement, Amazon and Google said that other YouTube properties would come to Fire TV in the future, including YouTube Kids. That’s now the last remaining YouTube video app missing from Fire TV, and YouTube previously launched on Amazon hardware and YouTube TV begins rolling out today.

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Google’s Grasshopper coding class for beginners comes to the desktop

Judhajeet Das

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Google today announced that Grasshopper, its tool for teaching novices how to code, is now available on the desktop, too, in the form of a web-based app. Back in 2018, Grasshopper launched out of Area 120 as a mobile app for Android and iOS and since then, Google says, “millions” have downloaded it.

A larger screen and access to a keyboard makes learning to code on the desktop significantly easier than on mobile. In the desktop app, for example, Google is able to put columns for the instructions, the code editor and the results next to each other.

ghop good dog v2

Google also today added two new classes to Grasshopper, in addition to the original “fundamentals” class on basic topics like variables, operators and loops. The new classes are Using a Code Editor and Intro to Webpages, which teaches you more about HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

In case you are wondering why a “Using a Code Editor” class is useful, it’s worth noting that most of the coding experience in the first few courses is more about clicking short code snippets and putting them in the right order than typing out code by hand.

After completing all courses, users will be able to build a simple webpage and be ready to take on more complex courses on other platforms, like Codecademy, for example.

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Google Play Pass launches with 350+ premium apps and games, initially for $1.99 per month

Judhajeet Das

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Following the well-received launch of Apple Arcade, Google today is officially introducing its own take on subscription-based access to premium mobile games — or, in Google’s case, premium mobile apps, too. The new Google Play Pass subscription, arriving this week, will offer more than 350 apps and games that are completely unlocked, with no upfront fees, in-app purchases or advertisements. And the initial price point is something of a no-brainer — it’s just $1.99 per month for the first year, Google says.

That price will increase to $4.99 per month after the first 12 months have passed, which is the same price as Apple Arcade at launch. This launch promotion is only available until October 10, 2019, however.

The two services are similar in concept, as both are providing a large library of premium content for a monthly subscription. But there are some differences between the two.

For starters, Apple Arcade is filled with exclusives — meaning its games will not be found on Andriod. The reverse is not true for Google Play Pass. Instead, the Play Pass catalog includes many cross-platform titles, including some that even found their fame first on iOS, like ustwo’s Monument Valley.

In addition, Play Pass’s launch titles aren’t all games. There are also ad-free versions of popular mobile apps, like AccuWeather, Facetune and Pic Stitch, for example.

Notable launch titles include Stardew Valley, Risk, Terraria, Monument Valley, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Reigns: Game of Thrones, Titan Quest and Wayward Souls. Some lesser-known additions include LIMBO, Lichtspeer, Mini Metro and Old Man’s Journey. Others, like This War of Mine and Cytus, are coming soon. And for little kids, there are some preschooler-friendly titles like Toca Boca classics and the My Town series.

More titles are added on a monthly basis, Google says.

pph realistic

Because it’s not relying on exclusives; Google’s catalog is more than triple the size of Apple’s at launch. That being said, Apple’s Arcade library is filled with gorgeous, high-quality games while Play Pass is rounded out with a lot more utilities, like weather apps and photo editors.

Play Pass ticket logoLike Apple Arcade, the new subscription gets its own tab in the Google Play app, where the games are organized by genre, popularity and other factors — just like a mini app store. However, unlike Apple Arcade, where games are only found in the Arcade tab or through search, Google Play Pass titles will appear directly in the Play Store. They’ll be designated with a Play Pass ticket badge, so you can easily identify them.

The Play Pass subscription also allows the games to be shared with the whole family. The family manager can share their Play Pass subscription with up to five other family members, who can each access the titles independently. This is comparable to Apple Arcade.

We already knew Google was working on an Apple Arcade competitor before today. The Play Pass subscription’s existence had been leaked, and Google later confirmed the service with a tweet. What we didn’t yet know was the launch date, lineup or the official pricing.

Google Play Pass service is rolling out this week to Android devices in the U.S., with more countries coming soon. A 10-day subscription is available, before it converts to the $1.99 per month limited promotion, followed by the $4.99 per month price point when the promotion ends.

While neither Apple nor Google is discussing the terms of their deals with developers, Google says the more people download a Play Pass title, the more the revenue developers receive on a recurring basis. It also explained that Google itself is funding the initial launch offer, so developers can gain more subscriber interest without impacting their revenue.

 

 

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