Entertainment

Amazon and Google make peace over smart TV competition

The two companies have struck a deal that allows Amazon to work with manufacturers like TCL, which also makes Android TVs and phones.

Android with an Amazon smile

The deal between Amazon and Google resolves a yearslong dispute over licensing restrictions Google imposes on hardware manufacturers.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Last week, the Competition Commission of India published a damning report, alleging that Google was preventing major TV manufacturers from adopting Amazon’s Fire TV operating system. This Thursday, Amazon announced that TCL, one of the manufacturers at the center of the dispute, is releasing two TV sets running its Fire TV software in Europe this fall.

The unveiling of the two TV models is the direct result of a deal Google and Amazon struck in recent months, Protocol has learned from a source close to one of the parties involved in the agreement.

As a result of that deal, Amazon has been able to work with a number of consumer electronics companies — including not only TCL, but also Xiaomi and Hisense — to vastly expand the number of available smart TVs running Fire TV OS. All of these companies were previously barred from doing so under licensing terms imposed by Google.

The agreement may also alleviate some of the pressure Google has been feeling as regulators around the world have investigated its Android platform. However, some experts are skeptical a singular deal will address the overarching concerns with Google’s operation and licensing of Android to third parties.

During a briefing about the release of the TCL TVs, Amazon’s vice president of entertainment devices Daniel Rausch said the report issued by Indian regulators “and its findings speak for themselves,” and declined to comment further on the matter.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the relationship between the two companies when contacted for this story earlier this summer; the company didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up request for comment this week.

Amazon went on the offensive in India

The deal between Amazon and Google resolves a yearslong dispute over licensing restrictions Google imposes on hardware manufacturers that make Android-based phones, TVs, and other devices. In order to gain access to Google’s officially sanctioned version of Android as well as the company’s popular apps like Google Maps and YouTube, manufacturers have to sign a confidential document known as the Android Compatibility Commitment. The ACC prevents manufacturers from also making devices based on forked versions of Android not compatible with Google’s guidelines.

The ACC, which was previously known as the Anti-Fragmentation Agreement, had long been an open secret in industry circles. Its full impact on the smart TV space became public when Protocol reported terms of the agreement in March of 2020 and outlined how the policy effectively barred companies like TCL from making smart TVs running any forked version of Android, including Amazon’s Fire TV OS.

Google has been justifying these policies by pointing to the harmful consequences of Android fragmentation, positing that the rules assured developers and consumers that apps would run across all Android-based devices. However, the crux of Google’s requirements is that they apply across device categories. By making a Fire TV-based smart TV, TCL would have effectively risked losing access to Google’s Android for its smartphone business — a risk the company, and many of its competitors that develop both smartphones and TVs, weren’t willing to take.

At the time, both Google and Amazon declined to comment on the dispute. However, Amazon was a lot more forthcoming when it talked to Indian regulators for a wide-ranging probe into Google’s Android policies.

“Given the breadth of the anti-fragmentation obligations, Amazon has also experienced significant difficulties in finding [original equipment manufacturer] partners to manufacture smart TVs running its Fire OS,” the company’s Indian subsidiary told regulators in a submission that was included in last week’s report. Amazon told regulators that “at least seven” manufacturers had told the company they weren’t able to make Fire TV-based smart TVs because of Google’s restrictions.

“In several cases, the OEM has indicated that it cannot work with Amazon despite a professed desire to do so in connection with smart TVs,” Amazon said in its submission. “In others, the OEM has tried and failed to obtain ‘permission’ from Google.”

Officially, Google’s position remains unchanged

Signs that the two companies were able to resolve these issues first surfaced earlier this year, when Amazon announced a TV partnership with Hisense, followed by a similar announcement for Fire TVs made by Xiaomi. Asked about those developments, a Google spokesperson declined to comment on the evolving relationship between the two companies earlier this summer.

Instead, the spokesperson shared a statement with Protocol that outlined the company’s reasoning for its use of the Android Compatibility Commitment against forked versions of the mobile operating system. “Our focus as a platform is to provide consistent and secure software experiences to users and developers, across our ecosystem of partner devices,” the statement reads in part. “If a device is incompatible, we cannot guarantee that the apps on Android will work reliably, which could put user security at risk.”

Google’s statement also maintained that hardware manufacturers who sign the ACC were “free to build, distribute and market any device based on any OS.” However, if that operating system happened to be based on Android, the company would “ask them to ensure compatibility for [Google’s] ecosystem.”

The statement mirrors Google’s long-standing stance on Android compatibility — a position that would have effectively forced Amazon to make significant changes to the Fire TV operating system in order to more closely align it with Google’s version. Yet there are no indications Amazon has made any such changes.

Only a temporary reprieve?

Following Protocol’s initial report on the issue, regulators in India also began a separate probe to specifically look into the impact Google’s policies were having on smart TV manufacturers. The current status of that smart TV-focused investigation is unknown, but it’s entirely possible that India’s regulators would proceed even with an agreement between Google and Amazon in place.

After all, Google’s public statements suggest that the company hasn’t changed its tune on anti-fragmentation policies in general. This means that consumer electronics companies may still be prevented from using their own forked versions of Android on TVs if they also make Google-licensed Android TVs or smartphones.

Those concerns were echoed by a source familiar with Google’s OEM partner operations who spoke to Protocol on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the company.

“No one believes Google has found religion on the value of fair competition,” that source told Protocol. “What is more likely is they are feeling the relentless gaze of Congress and federal regulators into their anticompetitive practices, and are picking and choosing the battles they want to engage in to avoid unnecessary headline risk. This means some players may be allowed a temporary reprieve. [...] But it is at most a tacit short-term move.”

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