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Samsung has a hold on Android, and Google can’t do anything about it

Samsung is killing it in the marketplace, outselling not just other Android OEMs, but even beating Apple at various times. You’ve probably heard the banter about Samsung forking Android and taking Google out of the equation, but that’s not the real problem Google is facing. Samsung is selling so many Android phones that Google could simply lose control. Samsung doesn’t have to fork Android – Google no longer has any choice but to do Samsung’s bidding.

Google finds itself with a strange kind of success on its hands. Android is stupendously popular, but that success is being driven largely by Samsung’s Galaxy devices. The original vision for Android was more distributed – egalitarian even. Instead, market forces have concentrated power with Samsung. This effectively nullifies the feeble control mechanisms Google built into Android and gives Samsung license to run wild.

So how bad is the problem? Really bad. According to numbers from Gartner Research, Samsung sold almost 65 million Android phones in the last quarter of 2012, which is almost as many units as all Android OEMs moved the previous year. To put it another way, Samsung by itself is now the same size as all of Android in late 2011. In 2012, Samsung moved 42 per cent of Android devices globally. It is entirely possible that in 2013, the Galaxy S4 will push Samsung over half of all Android sales.

Google has thus far been able to maintain a modicum of control over device makers by holding its own closed source Google apps hostage. If you’re making a phone, open source Android is free, but Gmail, Play, and Maps can only be obtained by working with Mountain View. Google has used its final say in the past to tweak devices, for example when Samsung was forced to ditch Skyhook’s location service a few years back.

If that scenario or a similar one came up now, I have a hard time believing Google could force Samsung to do anything. When a single company controls the majority of the platform, Google can’t deny it access to the apps and services that make Android great. The concerns over Samsung forking Android are overblown because Samsung can get everything it wants without pulling out of the Google ecosystem.

When Samsung’s Galaxy S4 gobbles up even more Android market share, Google is going to have little choice but to roll out the red carpet. Galaxy has completely overtaken the Droid brand, and is now the public face of Android. Samsung is going to continue to crush other Android OEMs and Google cannot do anything about it. We may see less innovation in the smartphone market as the dominant players feel less pressure to take risks.

Whatever Samsung wants, Samsung gets, and everyone else can have the scraps.