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Google sets Android security updates rules but enforcement is unclear

The vendor requirements for Android are a strange and mysterious thing but a new leak claims Google has added language to force manufacturers to push more regular Android security updates.

According to The Verge, Google’s latest contract will require OEMs to supply Android security updates for two years and provide at least four updates within the first year of a device’s release. Vendors will also have to release patches within 90 days of Google identifying a vulnerability.

Mandating more consistent Android security updates is certainly a good thing, but it remains unclear what penalties Google would levy against manufacturers that fail to provide the updates or if Google would follow through on any punitive actions.

It has been known for years that Google sets certain rules for manufacturers who want to include the Play Store, Play services and Google apps on Android devices, but because enforcement has been unclear the rules have sometimes been seen as mere suggestions.

For example, Google has had a requirement in place since the spring of 2011 mandating manufacturers to upgrade devices to the latest version of the Android OS released within 18 months of a device’s launch. However, because of the logistics issues of providing those OS updates, Google has rarely been known to enforce that requirement.

This can be seen in the Android OS distribution numbers, which are a complete mess. Currently, according to Google, the most popular version of Android on devices in the wild is Android 6.0 Marshmallow (21.6%), followed by Android 7.0 (19%), Android 5.1 (14.7%), Android 8.0 (13.4%) and Android 7.1 (10.3%). And not even showing up on Google’s numbers because it hasn’t hit the 0.1% threshold for inclusion is Android 9.0 released in August.

Theoretically, the ultimate enforcement of the Android requirements would be Google barring a manufacturer from releasing a device that includes Google apps and services, but there have been no reports of that ever happening. Plus, the European Union’s recent crackdown on Android give an indication that Google does wield control over the Android ecosystem — and was found to be abusing that power.

The ruling in the EU will allow major OEMs to release forked versions of Android without Google apps and services (something they were previously barred from doing by Google’s contract). It will also force Google to bundle the Play Store, services and most Google apps into a paid licensing bundle, while offering — but not requiring — the Chrome browser and Search as a free bundle. Although early rumors suggest Google might offset the cost of the apps bundle by paying OEMs to use Chrome and Google Search, effectively making it all free and sidestepping any actual change.

These changes only apply to Android devices released in the EU, but it should lead to more devices on the market running Android but featuring third-party apps and services. This could mean some real competition for Google from less popular Android forks such as Amazon’s Fire OS or Xiaomi’s MIUI.

It’s still unknown if the new rules regarding Android security updates are for the U.S. only or if they will be part of contracts in other regions. But, an unintended consequence of the EU rules might be to strengthen Google’s claim that the most secure Android devices are those with the Play Store and Play services.

Google has long leaned on its strong record of keeping malware out of the Play Store and off of user devices, if Play services are installed. Google consistently shows that the highest rates of malware come from sideloading apps in regions where the Play Store and Play services are less common — Russia and China – and where third-party sources are more popular.

Assuming the requirements for Android security updates do apply in other regions around the globe, it might be fair to also assume they’d be tied to the Google apps and services bundle (at least in the EU) because otherwise Google would have no way to put teeth behind the rules. So, not only would Google have its stats regarding how much malware is taken care of in the Play Store and on user devices by Play services, it might also have more stats showing those devices are more consistently updated and patched.

The Play Store, services and Google apps are an enticing carrot to dangle in front of vendors when requiring things like Android security updates, and there is reason to believe manufacturers would be willing to comply in order to get those apps and services, even if the penalties are unclear.

More competition will be coming to the Android ecosystem in the EU, and it’s not unreasonable to think that competition could spread to the U.S., especially if Google is scared to face similar actions by the U.S. government (as unlikely as that may seem).  And the less power Google apps and services have in the market, the  less force there will be behind any Google requirements for security updates.

 

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