Android apps on Windows gives us what Google promised all along

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Android apps on Windows gives us what Google promised all along

“We got to bring Android and Chrome to each screen that matters for users.” That was Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaking at Google I/O 2014. Seven years later and Pichai’s vision may finally be coming to fruition but perhaps not within the way he’d envisioned.

It’s taken the combined forces of Amazon and Microsoft to bring the core of the Android experience — the all-important apps — to millions of more users with the introduction of native Android app support on Windows 11. the answer may be a potential game-changer for users’ interaction with their favorite apps, smartphones, and PCs. Still, it’s perplexing that the initiative hasn’t been driven by Google but by one among its biggest rivals.

Google has always talked powerfully about the merits of open-source software at the guts of Android and, therefore, the benefits of open platforms to drive innovation and convey technology to the masses. To quote Pichai another time, “when you run a platform on the scale, you’ve got to form sure it’s truly open. That way, not only does one had best, so do others.”

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That’s undoubtedly true. Google’s smartphone, smart home, and television products wouldn’t be the thriving, cross-hardware ecosystems they’re today without expansive partnerships and interdependent collaboration. The recent Google and Samsung partnership for Wear OS 3.0 is such an example. Considering Google has shown time and time again that it can’t be trusted to integrate its behemoth service portfolio across even its hardware correctly, it’s good that the search giant is ostensibly so hospitable playing nice with others.

However, the company’s actions have often not lived up to the present ethos over the past decade. On the one hand, Google preaches openness and competition yet retains an iron grip on its software with the opposite. This is often particularly true when it involves Android and its biggest tech rivals.

You don’t need to look far to seek out samples of Google’s uncooperative approach to rival ecosystems. For example, near the beginning of the last decade, Google infamously blocked Microsoft’s YouTube app for the latter’s ill-fated Windows Phones. For newer examples, Google reportedly forbids Android TV partners from engaging with other Android forks (see: Amazon Fire TV). The Mountain View firm also dragged its heels updating its apps to satisfy Apple’s new App Store privacy labels.

The most controversial and powerful tool Google asserts control over Android and its associated app ecosystem is Google Mobile Services (GMS). GMS may be a set of programming features (APIs) for developers to tap into Android’s tools for location data, payments, security, and other relatively standard features employed by closed-source Google apps and third-party software.

Android could also be open-source, but you’ve got to play by Google’s rule if you would like access to the ecosystem’s biggest app store.

However, GMS licenses are only granted to devices that suit Google’s Compatibility Definition Document (CDD) and associated tests. This suggests you’ve got to support all of Google’s services, like ads and therefore the store, albeit you want only to use Google’s location API. Even then, obtaining a license has strict conditions. For example, 2013’s Play Store contract demanded that companies not take any actions that might cause “fragmentation of Android.” like developing a forked-OS. So competition is ok, but only it benefits Google.

Demands like this are deemed unfair within the EU, leading to a hefty $5 billion fine in 2018. The ruling saw the corporate eventually change its EU requirements for Google services on Android in 2018. But, of course, that didn’t change the established order in other markets, including, most notably, the US.

The Big G markets GMS and its Play Services as tools for ensuring high-quality, consistent user experiences across apps and hardware. That’s true, to some extent. However, it’s also a problem to prod and punish manufacturers that dare take Android in its direction. And remember, Google ultimately decides and maintains what goes into the most Android open-source project.

While Android remains free for anyone to use as they might like, only Android-compatible devices enjoy the complete Android ecosystem.

Importantly, your device can’t run Google’s apps or other apps that believe associated services and APIs without GMS. The loss of the Google Play Store is undoubtedly the most critical potential loss. Still, other features, like locations for Uber, or WhatsApp’s Drive backup feature, believe GMS for core functionality. This is often the rationale that Amazon and Huawei — the latter of which has seen its smartphone empire crumble outside of China without access to GMS — have their app stores and a more limited selection of software on their forked versions of Android OS. And yes, this also means Windows 11 won’t offer all the apps you’re probably want to use inside Google’s ecosystem.

So why is all that important? For starters, it shows how Google controls the developer tools, distribution platforms, and even the hardware that falls under its ecosystem. It’s a self-enforcing hierarchy that Google won’t easily spare, especially for a rival like Microsoft.

The result’s a contradictory approach to open collaboration. the corporate has long touted the advantages of open software and standards yet staunchly opposes competition at the sides of its ecosystem. Google could compromise and make GMS more readily accessible to bring its entire library of apps to Windows and other ecosystems, but it’s chosen not to. A bit like how it brought the Play Store to Chrome OS but to not Linux more widely.

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The irony is that Google had the right message for years, but its fundamental approach is becoming increasingly flawed. As a result, consumers are more likely to embrace platforms that enable them to run equivalent software across multiple devices. Ideally, I would like to run precisely the same messaging, fitness tracking, and banking apps with identical features across all my gadgets. Amazon’s Android app support on Windows may be a significant step towards this reality. Likewise, there’s an identical direction of travel over at Apple, which quickly aims for app and hardware parity across iOS, iPad, and Macs.

Google’s contradictory approach to open collaboration prevents it from bringing apps and services to millions more devices and users.

Google faces losing out on multi-platform momentum while its biggest rivals benefit. Amazon stands to take advantage of app sales and far greater exposure on Microsoft’s platform. I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon’s Fire TV, tablet, and innovative home products see a lift to sales too. Meanwhile, Windows 11 benefits from an entire host of the latest cross-platform applications, and it represents another step outside the venerable OS’s traditional PC-only base.

Panos Panay, Chief Product Officer for Windows, recently stated that each store and apps are welcome on Windows, hinting that the corporate remains hospitable working with Google. But unless Amazon’s move shakes things up, it seems doubtful that Google will want to loosen the grip on its Android app ecosystem and provides us the vision of computing it’s been talking about for therefore long.