The Huawei Disaster Reveals Google’s Iron Grip on Android
Open source isn’t as open as you think
Google’s Android is pitched as the open, free-for-everyone alternative to the iPhone. However, to comply with a recent order from the U.S. government, Google pulled the Chinese tech company and smartphone manufacturer Huawei’s license to use the proprietary Google software that sits on top of Android. In doing so, Google quietly exposed the powerful control it has over its supposedly open phone ecosystem.
Most Android manufacturers — including Huawei — are what’s known as Google hardware partners. This relationship lets them build their phones around a collection of Google products, from apps like Google Maps and Assistant, to under-the-hood tools like location services or push notifications. While Google gives off the impression that Android is open and available to everyone, these services represent a quiet control that the company doesn’t often enforce over its hardware partners — though, as it has now proven, it certainly can.
With the recent order, the U.S. government forced Google’s hand. The U.S. Department of Commerce put Huawei on the “Entity List,” which blocks it from buying technology from U.S. companies without government approval. Huawei and Google now have three months to send updates to existing users. For new phones, Huawei may be able to use the open-source version of Android, but it can’t be a Google partner.
The distinction between using Android and being a Google partner seems messy from the outside, but “Android” technically refers to the core operating system that covers basic things like making phone calls or using the camera. The freely available version of Android is called the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and a company doesn’t have to be a partner to use it.
Most manufacturers like Huawei, however, do choose to become a Google partner. That means Huawei agrees to only make devices that use a collection of Google apps known as Google Mobile Services which includes things like Gmail, YouTube, and the Google Play Store. Under this arrangement, Huawei can’t, for example, make a phone that ships with Microsoft’s Bing and Edge instead of Google Search and Chrome.
Manufacturers generally have little…