Back in June I wrote about the China branded OEMs as the last big ‘swing vote bloc’ in the handset market. These vendors which contribute so much to global handset volumes have not fully voted on which mobile operating system to adopt. For the most part, they have embraced Android. Admittedly, there are very few other options. Except in China where many of the mobile Internet companies have dipped their toe in the mobile OS space through re-skinned versions of Android.
However, on my recent visit, I started to hear complaints about how this was working. The smaller OEMs are all having a hard time getting any help from Google. And by help, I mean the ability to comply with Google’s compatibility tests needed to become a certified Android handset.
This is a subject I have covered extensively in the past. Google offers the Android codebase for free download, but this is only part of the software needed to make a phone viable. To get full access to Google’s offering, handset vendors need to meet a variety of tests and sign an agreement with Google. In particular, Google has used access to its other sites as the key negotiating component. You can build a phone using the free-to-download version of Android, but if you want that phone to access G-Mail, Google Maps and in particular, the Google Play app store, then you need to be fully compliant with Google. Let me introduce some acronyms. The set of Google apps in question is known as the ‘G-Suite’ and the compliance regime is called GMA in China. (I admit, I am not sure what that stands for as there have been several compliance regimes over the years.) Put simply, to get into the G-Suite you need to sign up for GMA.
The trick is that GMA is only available to people with a direct relationship with Team Android. For reasons that are not entirely clear, this team has not engaged directly with the China OEMs. My best guess is that the Android GMA team is very small and simply lacks the bandwidth to deal with approving devices from dozens if not hundreds of small vendors. To some degree, they farm out that work to their chipset partners like Qualcomm and Mediatek, but it appears that Google has not fully delegated the GMA to the baseband providers, preferring to keep that power firmly rested in Mountain View. And to be fair, it is no easy task for Google to operate in China. That being said, all the OEMs we spoke with said they would be happy to sign agreements in Hong Kong, which after all is just over the border from Shenzhen.
The net result of all this is that the small vendors, who collectively ship several hundred million phones a year, have to make do. If you buy a phone on the streets of Shenzhen, even a device with no obvious branding on it, you are probably getting a phone that has access to the full G-Suite. My contacts tell me that ‘cracked’ G-Suite keys are readily available in China.
So here we come to the crux of the problem. Android wants to use the G-Suite to control Android as best as they can. But corporate Google just wants billions of people to have ready access to all of Google’s offerings. The compromise in China means cracked software codes, and all the security implications that those likely entail.
One OEM told me that he had tried repeatedly to reach out to Google but got no response. I found this story very resonant, as it was exactly what they told me four years ago about Microsoft. Before Android became a big hit, the China OEMs were hoping to work with Microsoft, a brand they knew well. But they got the same cold shoulder. I am not suggesting that Android is going to go the way of Windows Mobile, but a little bit of work on the part of Android and Google could go a long way to sealing up a very significant constituency.