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Google Reins In Android Device Makers

On watches, TVs and cars, hardware makers have little or no power to customize Google's software. It could be the PC business all over again.

Vjeran Pavic

When Samsung and LG showed their Android Wear watches last Wednesday, it was hard to tell them apart.

Not only were the devices running identical software, but Google demanded that, at least for the day, both companies limit their display to demo mode, essentially a movie trailer of what the smart watches could do. Even when they were allowed to show the full software running the next day, the two watches were nearly indistinguishable.

Prepare for much more of that as Google expands into new categories in its quest to dominate your connected life. It’s a scene that is playing out in other areas, such as TVs and cars, where Google’s latest efforts leave hardware makers little room to augment the software beyond what Google is providing.

For hardware makers, it’s a replay of the PC era, when computer manufacturers watched Microsoft extract the value of the personal computing business as they suffered thinning profit margins and few ways to distinguish themselves from beige-box rivals.

Electronics makers are keenly aware of that history lesson and eager to avoid a similar fate, but only the largest of them are in any position to exert influence. Samsung, for example, has held up Tizen, a homegrown mobile operating system, as a hedge against Google’s power and holds significant bargaining power as it accounts for the largest share of Android shipments.

Of course, the core of Android is open source, meaning one could build a television, car or watch without any input from Google. But for those who want access to Google’s apps and services — what most people think of when they think about Android — Google is being far more restrictive.

On the watch front, for example, the biggest choice a hardware maker gets to make so far is deciding whether to use a square or circular hardware design: Their decisions are limited to the size and type of screen, how big a battery to include and some flexibility around which sensors are included. As far as software customization goes, they can come up with a few watch faces, but not much more. That makes it tough for for any one hardware maker to stand out.

The restrictions are also applied to Android TV. Companies can either offer it as a set-top box or built into TV sets.

Google says the moves make its software more consistent, especially for those using multiple Android-based devices.

“With everything from our new design language (material design) to the platform improvements we previewed, our goal is create a consistent multi-screen experience for people,” Google said in a statement to Re/code. “We’re investing in ways to make Android simpler, more consistent and more synchronized for multi-screen users and making it easier for developers to scale their apps across new form factors, which include cars, wearables, TVs, etc.”

But for hardware makers and carriers, the moves could have the effect of shifting more value to Google and making it tougher for them to stand out in an already crowded market.

Even on the phone side, Google is seeking new ways to restrict makers from making changes. One of these efforts is the Android One, a program designed to boost Google’s role in emerging markets.

With that program, hardware makers can’t change Google’s software at all, though they can have their own apps that get pushed automatically from the Google Play store. Android devices also get updated by Google automatically, further limiting the say of carriers and device makers in how those phones operate over time.

Google is targeting ultra-low-end phones in emerging markets, starting with only a few companies in India.

But Google clearly sees a benefit in ensuring more phones adhere to the “pure Android” model. The company started with its Nexus hardware program and expanded that to add “Google Play” version of top smartphones that run stock Android. It has also attempted to rein in even its largest manufacturer, Samsung, earlier this year.

But while the Nexus and Google Play versions of phones are close to what Google envisions on the software side, it has largely been a niche play. Google is attempting to get similar phones into the hands of more consumers in a program known as Android Silver that, sources say, will promote mainstream phones that use a more Google-y form of the operating system compared to what most Android phone makers offer today.

Not all hardware makers are eager to sign up for Silver, we’re told, though Google’s money and an ultra-competitive market could well be too much to resist.

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