Enlarge / Let’s see, you hit my Google Ads spot and with three houses…that’s $1,400.

Ron Amadeo / Hasbro

Can Android manufacturers ship devices running Android forks? It’s a tough and scary question for OEMs, and Google must have liked it. The contracts Android OEMs sign with Google, which are required to license the Play Store and other Google apps, explicitly say “no forks.” Google says that Android forking will harm the Android ecosystem, so OEMs must promise never to participate in the production of devices running an Android fork. Some regulatory bodies, namely in the EU, have ruled that the “no forks” clause in the Android contract is not legal and that Google can’t punish OEMs that step outside the walled garden. However, the EU does not control the entire world, so Google cannot punish manufacturers in the EU, what happens in the rest of the world?

Google’s no-fork clause has always been a big problem for Amazon, whose Fire OS is the No. 1 Android fork. Since most major tech manufacturers are somehow involved in Android phones, tablets, TVs, laptops, cars or watches, Amazon always has to was claw and scrape to find someone willing to make fire extinguishers. Amazon complained about it Competition Commission of India last week, saying: “At least seven OEMs have indicated that their ability to enter into this type of manufacturing relationship with Amazon is either completely blocked or significantly limited (for example, in terms of geographic coverage) by their contractual obligations to Google”. India is Android’s largest market, so any rulings there will be noteworthy.

TCL's new TV runs Amazon's Fire OS, a fork of Android.
Enlarge / TCL’s new TV runs Amazon’s Fire OS, a fork of Android.


A new report from Yank Rotgers of Protocol says that Google is waive this restriction, at least for TVs. The report says that Google and Amazon “have struck a deal” that allows Android manufacturers to make TVs running Fire TV OS, and that TCL, Xiaomi and Hisense will offer products in both ecosystems. TCL has already announced the lovingly named “CF63K Fire series” TVs—Fire TV 4K, 60Hz displays with Amazon Alexa. The company also makes sets with Android TV software and Roku. Xiaomi, a staunch Android OEM, also announced Fire TV in May of this year.

Google’s agreements with manufacturers are confidential, and have always been many years since we have learned what the manufacturers constantly agree to. In general, however, the story is that the Android platform’s code base is open, while Google’s apps are not. Manufacturers looking to build a viable product need access to the Play Store, all the major APIs locked away in Play Services, and Google’s dreaded apps like YouTube and Google Maps. All of these apps (and the Android name, a registered trademark of Google) must be licensed, and that license includes an “anti-fragmentation” agreement that prohibits manufacturers from communicating with devices that aren’t running a Google-approved version of Android. If a manufacturer builds a branching device and violates this contract, Google can revoke its Google app license and kick it out of the Android ecosystem. Competition Commission of India investigation repeats many of these points, but unfortunately all the juicy bits have been edited out.

Although manufacturers have seemingly received permission from Google to make devices for competitors, Google is still keeping things in the dark. The report said Google’s “official position remains unchanged,” and the company released a statement indicating that anti-fragmentation rules are still in place. The rules clearly don’t work, and the EU specifically ordered Google not to follow them. Xiaomi and TCL Fire TVs there is only announced for Europe, so maybe Google uses different rules for different countries. The proof will be which devices are delivered to which countries.