Google today announced it will make it easier to install and use third-party app stores with the release of Android 12 next year. (Google releases new versions of Android annually and launched Android 11 earlier this month.) Google also reiterated its existing Payments Policy for in-app purchases of digital goods: Android developers who want to distribute apps and games on Google Play must use Google’s billing system. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Google is offering a 1-year grace period for developers who aren’t complying with this policy: The deadline is September 30, 2021.
Today’s announcements are a direct response to Epic’s war with Apple and Google over the 30% cut the companies take of every purchase on the iOS App Store and the Google Play store, respectively. On August 13, Epic updated Fortnite for Android and iOS to use its own billing service, resulting in Apple and Google deleting Fortnite from their app stores. Epic then turned around and sued both tech giants. The lawsuits could define how all developers, from individuals to massive corporations, distribute apps on the world’s duopoly of mobile operating systems.
While Apple has responded aggressively to Epic’s moves, Google has been sitting quietly on the sidelines, until now. Although the company is promising to make it easier to use other Android app stores next year, Google isn’t conceding anything. It’s just emphasizing how its app store approach differs from Apple’s: “Android has always allowed people to get apps from multiple app stores. In fact, most Android devices ship with at least two app stores preinstalled, and consumers are able to install additional app stores. Each store is able to decide its own business model and consumer features. This openness means that even if a developer and Google do not agree on business terms the developer can still distribute on the Android platform. This is why Fortnite, for example, is available directly from Epic’s store or from other app stores including Samsung’s Galaxy App store.”
Android 12 app stores
Google likes to say that Android is open and that developers can choose how they distribute their apps on the platform. While it is true that Google Play is not the only app store for Android (unlike Apple’s App Store being the only app store for iOS), Google encourages device makers to include Google Play on their devices and discourages them from including third-party app stores. In the name of security, Android also warns you when you install Android apps not from Google Play.
Google is signaling today that some of this user experience will change in Android 12, without specifying how. Google says that in response to developer feedback, “we will be making changes in Android 12 (next year’s Android release) to make it even easier for people to use other app stores on their devices while being careful not to compromise the safety measures Android has in place. We are designing all this now and look forward to sharing more in the future!”
Google also made sure to add that Android has “always” let users choose “which apps they use, be it their keyboard, messaging app, phone dialer, or app store.” Putting aside that this isn’t strictly true, the message is clear: Android gives users more control over apps than iOS. In short, Google’s argument amounts to “Please don’t punish us — Android is already more open than iOS when it comes to apps AND we’re making it better.”
Google Play billing policies
Aside from the 30% cut, Epic and other developers complain that Apple and Google force them to use their billing systems if they want to use their app stores. Apple enforces this rule very strictly. Google hasn’t been enforcing its rule as strictly, so it’s taking the opportunity now to clarify its stance:
We only collect a service fee if the developer charges users to download their app or they sell in-app digital items, and we think that is fair. Not only does this approach allow us to continuously reinvest in the platform, this business model aligns our success directly with the success of developers.
But we have heard feedback that our policy language could be more clear regarding which types of transactions require the use of Google Play’s billing system, and that the current language was causing confusion. We want to be sure our policies are clear and up to date so they can be applied consistently and fairly to all developers, and so we have clarified the language in our Payments Policy to be more explicit that all developers selling digital goods in their apps are required to use Google Play’s billing system.
Google estimates that this impacts less than 3% of apps on Google Play (97% use Google Play’s billing system today). Because of COVID-19, Google is giving those developers more time to make the change:
We recognize that the global pandemic has resulted in many businesses having to navigate the challenges of moving their physical business to digital and engaging audiences customers in a new way, for example, moving in-person experiences and classes online. For the next 12 months, these businesses will not need to comply with our payments policy, and we will continue to reassess the situation over the next year.
Google also made a point to note that its own apps will not be exempt. Google apps that do not already use Google Play’s billing system will have to be updated to do so by next September, too.