The fact alone that Google will start charging in Europe for what one could fairly call “parts of” Android is in itself huge news. The change, announced yesterday as a result of a European Commission lawsuit, is a major shift in Google’s business model and has the potential to loosen the company’s grip on the search and browser market. It is a big deal.

But of all the changes that this new licensing model could bring, simply charging licensees might not be the biggest. The biggest detail could end up being that Google’s phone and tablet partners — like Samsung, LG, and Motorola — can now offer Android-based phones in Europe without any Google apps and services on them. That’s a huge deal, and if manufacturers are daring enough to try it, it could lead to a substantially different market for Android phones some years down the road.

Until now, Google has locked phone and tablet makers into its ecosystem. If they wanted to include Google’s apps and services at all, they had to include those apps and services on every Android phone or tablet that they made (with the exception of inside China, where Google doesn’t operate). That’s meant, for instance, that Samsung couldn’t release a variant of the Galaxy S9 that only includes the Galaxy Apps store and the Samsung browser anddoesn’tinclude Chrome, Google Play, or Google search.

We can get a glimpse in China, where apps are split across many different stores — none has more than a quarter of the market, according to the mobile research firm Newzoo — but even that doesn’t paint the full picture. There’s been little incentive for companies to make phone variants, let alone completely different hardware, just for one country. Now they have almost the entirety of Europe to market these non-Google devices to.

Even if this isn’t a revolution, it could lead to some notable projects. Amazon’s Google-free Fire tablets are some of the cheapest options on the market. And there’s a sign that other companies could get behind Amazon’s effort. The Commission wrote that it had “found evidence that Google’s conduct prevented a number of large manufacturers from developing and selling devices based on Amazon’s Android fork called ‘Fire OS.’”

Who knows if they’ll do that: Companies make money off of Google search referrals, and customers want Google’s apps. This exception is also limited only to Europe, since that’s where the ruling is. That limitation could make it hard for companies to get the scale necessary to make starting up an alternative ecosystem a sound decision, since these devices couldn’t be sold pretty much anywhere else.

But they can try. And ultimately, that means that Google has to be careful. Before, Android phone makers had no alternative — now, they do. For Google, which doesn’t truly own Android, that could be the first serious threat to its worldwide phone dominance in years.


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