How Google is losing its grip on Android

Despite being open source Android has always unmistakably been a Google product.

Device manufacturers are welcome to build their own version of Android, but they’re required to conform to a host of requirements if they are to put the Google apps on their products. And given that Android’s premier app store, the Play Store, is owned by Google it is not an option for most companies to go it alone, even if they wanted to.

And Google’s tendency to issue crucial updates via the Google Play Services app rather than the OS may have been seen as a way of tackling the much discussed (and not as important as the amount it gets) fragmentation problem, but it also had the effect of ensuring Google maintained control over the Android experience.

But could this change? Three minor news snippets in recent weeks hint at a future where Android doesn’t automatically mean Google. Could the Mountain View giant be about to lose its grip on its own OS?

The rise of Google-less Android phones

The first of these news stories was the report that as much as a fifth of Android phones have no Google services on them at all.

It’s a striking headline, but the story is not necessarily as significant as it may seem at first, or at least not as straight forward. The bulk of these Google-free Android devices is sold in China, where Android is huge but Google isn’t.

This is a phenomenon that we’ll have to get used to seeing more of in the future. The numbers in China are so huge that they will be able to skew any data, and not in meaningful ways. China can almost be seen as its own entity; what happens there often does not reflect a trend anywhere else in the world, and certainly not the West.

But that’s not to say the issue can be dismissed out of hand. China is the biggest of the emerging markets, and millions of Android devices will be sold there, as will millions of iPhones. It’s not an unimportant market for Google.

There’s also the prospect of a growing influence from the Chinese handset makers. Xiaomi is currently the fifth largest Android manufacturer in the world. Again, it has little presence outside of China, but as the thirst for high end devices at affordable prices grows elsewhere that could change.

Microsoft to buy Cyanogen?

Next up is the news that Microsoft has been in talks with Cyanogen, the custom ROM developer turned major tech company, and the company that powers the much discussed OnePlus One among others.

Cyanogen’s big appeal initially came through building ROMs based on the open source version of Android—the Google apps were installed separately, and only if you wanted them—and it became so large, and had so many new features it eventually became akin to whole new fork of the OS.

Microsoft needs a mobile strategy that works, and there are growing signs that it may not be Windows Phone. The latest stats from IDC show that Windows Phone’s market share has slumped to just 2.5%, while the overall market continues to grow.

In part this can be put down to a lack of Windows Phone hardware releases in the first half of the year (something that Microsoft has addressed at IFA, which should result in sales picking up again as we head to the all-important Christmas period), but also increasing competition in the areas that the OS has had some success. The bulk of Windows Phone sales have been at the budget end of the market, through the Lumia 520’s combination of decent design, build quality and performance and ultra-low price.

Since then Motorola has also targeted the same market with the Moto G, among others, the company’s biggest selling smartphone to date.

At the more premium end of the market, Windows Phone has struggled to make any impact at all.

Which brings us to Cyanogen. The company could, in theory, build Microsoft’s own version of Android. It would have no involvement from Google, and the assorted Microsoft services would be built into the OS from a low level. It could even have a UI that reflects the Windows design, if not fully copying it.

Apps wouldn’t be a problem either. Microsoft would need its own store, but Amazon has shown that it isn’t too hard to get developers to put their apps into a third party store so long as it is easy enough and the potential wins are there.

Of course, this would be a major turn around for Microsoft, not to mention an admission of defeat. But given the MS already makes around $2bn per year from Android device sales—more than it makes from Windows Phone sales—it might not be quite as far fetched as it seems.

HERE Maps for Samsung Galaxy

Finally it was announced recently that Samsung devices will come with HERE Maps installed in future. HERE is a Nokia product—not part of the Nokia division that was sold to Microsoft.

This is interesting because it has the potential to be the last piece of the puzzle for a long term strategy followed by Samsung. Ever since becoming the number one Android producer the company has been aware, if not wary, of how little control it has over its ecosystem. Unlike its arch rival Apple, which controls everything, Samsung’s mobile business is in hock to Google and its partners. (Notice how Samsung has opted not to use Android Wear for its smartwatches?)

Over the years Samsung has been producing a full suite of apps, largely replicating those already offered on Android via Google. There were the bread and butter productivity apps like a calendar and note taker, and more ambitious things such as S Voice, a cross between Google Now and Siri, as well as an app store, all wrapped up in a custom UI that hid almost all of the native Android UI design.

And there was also an OS, called Tizen. The idea was that the UI and apps could be brought over to Tizen-powered phones and the average would barely notice the difference.

It’s questionable how viable the Tizen strategy is, but by getting HERE Maps Samsung finally has its own replacement for Google Maps. If it ever needed to, Samsung could start testing the waters with devices with a smaller Google presence.

It’s all conjecture, at this stage. But control of ecosystems is going to be increasingly important as we move into the next generation of mobile. Google has helped push Android, and the manufacturers building devices on top of it, into the mainstream. The time may come when some of these manufacturers want to go it alone.