While the basic Android software is indeed available for free, and can be downloaded, compiled and changed by anyone, it doesn’t include the apps that make up Google’s mobile services – such as Maps, Gmail, and crucially Google Play, which allows people to connect to the online store where they can download apps.
Without them, a device has only minimal functionality.
To get the key apps, a manufacturer needs a “Google Mobile Services” (GMS) licence. GMS licences are issued on a per-model basis. While Google does not charge a fee for the licence, one of the integral steps in the licence-application process requires payment to authorised Android-testing factories. These factories, which include Foxconn and Archos, charge a fee for carrying out the testing required to obtain a GMS licence, which the Guardian understands is negotiated on a case-by-case, per-manufacturer basis.