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April 18, 2017

Google will no longer require apps be pre-installed on Android in Russia

by John_A

Why it matters to you

Google antitrust battles seriously impact Android and how it works — but in this case, it will also diversify the Android phones available.

Android phones in Russia may soon be a whole lot more diverse. As part of Google’s agreement with antitrust officials in Russia, Google will no longer require that phones sold in the country come with Google’s apps pre-installed. That paves the way for manufacturers to install their own replacement apps instead.

The news comes from Reuters, which notes that this marks the end of a battle that began in February 2015. On top of no longer requiring that apps like Gmail and Maps be pre-installed on Android, Google will also have to create a tool that allows users to change the default search engine — and manufacturers in Russia will still have access to the Google Play Store.

The dispute between Google and Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service has been a long one. While still trying to fend off European regulators, Google was struck with a $6.8 million fine from Russian antitrust officials. That is chump change for a company that nets about $75 billion in annual revenue, but it’s troubling — especially considering that the company’s appeal has been rejected by a Russian court, according to Reuters.

The fine, issued early in August, came months after Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service found Google guilty of stifling alternative search engines, such as the Russian-born Yandex, and other services in Android smartphones. The Moscow arbitration court upheld that decision in March 2016, dealing a blow to the Mountain View, California-based company’s power-broker status among phone manufacturers in the region.

The court agreed with the findings of the FAS — that Google abused its dominant position in the Russian mobile industry to advertise its own apps and services at the expense of local competition. In its decision last year, the agency said Google’s compulsory bundling policy — one that forces phone manufacturers to sign an agreement with the company to preinstall its services in exchange for access to its Play Store app market — was illegal under Russian anti-monopoly law.

The FAS said Russia’s competition laws affect all products that “are supplied to the Russian Federation” — including those from foreign companies.

“We have received notice of the fine from FAS and will analyze closely before deciding our next steps,” a Google spokesperson previously told Digital Trends. “In the meantime, we continue to talk to all invested parties to help consumers, device manufacturers, and developers thrive on Android in Russia.”

In counterarguments before the FAS last year, Google emphasized that its Android partners are free to opt for alternative apps instead of the company’s own. But regulators concluded that most manufacturers found the Play Store an irresistible carrot because it touts more than 2 million apps and a billion active users worldwide. That has led most to, for example, adopt Google as the default search engine on their handsets despite the popularity of Yandex (more than 80 percent of Russians report using Yandex for most Internet searches).

Android has generated billions in revenue and profit for the company since 2008, largely from advertisements shown on Android phones and transactions from the Play Store. In light of the recent decision, manufacturers may decide to supplant the company’s ad platform and app store with alternatives.

And the implications of the fine extend far beyond Russia. The European Union’s European Commission began a line of inquiry regarding the company’s Android practices last year, and in April 2016 accused the company of boosting its own services and apps on Android over other rival services.

In the U.S., Google may still be facing some trouble from the Federal Trade Commission, though the commission’s investigation on Google’s search dominance is still early in the process. The FTC once considered suing the company over similar practices in 2012 but scrapped those plans after officials failed to reach a consensus.

Google has previously told Digital Trends that “anyone can use Android, with or without Google applications. Hardware manufacturers and carriers can decide how to use Android and consumers have the last word about which apps they want to use on their devices.”

Yandex filed the complaint to the FAS in February 2015, kickstarting the investigation that led to the fine.

“We are satisfied with today’s Moscow Arbitration Tribunal decision,” a Yandex spokesperson told Digital Trends. “This decision confirms the FAS findings of the investigation into Google’s anti-competitive practices on Android.”

Article originally published in December 2016. Updated on 04-17-2017 by Christian de Looper: Added news that Google will no longer require manufacturers pre-install its apps in Russia.

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