The EU’s antitrust charges lodged against Google are puzzling to this columnist.
One of the persistent tragedies of Android, Google’s globe-conquering mobile-operating system, is that it continues to be better in theory than in reality.
The search company has spent more than a decade perfecting its software, and in the abstract, Android is now just as pristinely well-conceived as Apple’s iOS.
But almost nobody buys Google’s idealized version of Android; instead, most people buy a version that has been chewed up and predigested through the phone-maker-carrier supply chain.
For Android phones, this usually means loads of terrible, unnecessary apps installed by carriers and by the phone manufacturer itself.
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That’s why I was puzzled when the European Union (EU) recently opened a strange new front in its antitrust inquiry against Google.
Contrary to what you might have concluded from looking at your phone, the regulators argue that Android’s problem isn’t too many preloaded apps — it’s too few, and it’s all Google’s fault.
“Based on our investigation thus far, we believe that Google’s behavior denies consumers a wider choice of mobile apps and services and stands in the way of innovation by other players, in breach of EU antitrust rules,” Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, said in a statement.
The charges make sense in the abstract. Google makes the world’s most popular mobile-operating system, and some of its licenses do compel phone makers to include several Google apps, even if they just want to include the Google Play app store. On paper, that may constitute unfair “bundling,” one of the sins that did in Microsoft at its apex in the late 1990s.
Yet the European charges miss the messy reality of life on Android, which is clear to anyone who studies the mobile-software business: Android phones come teeming with non-Google apps, often to the point of frustration for users. The search company appears powerless to keep many of them off people’s devices.
There’s no better evidence for this than the meteoric rise of Facebook, Google’s archrival, which announced another blowout earnings report last week — with much of its revenue coming from ads on Android phones.
Facebook’s numbers show the primary weakness in the European Union’s case: If Google’s grand plan really is to keep rivals off Android phones, it sure is doing a poor job of it.
Representatives for the European Commission and for Google declined to comment for this column, citing the regulatory process.
Harry First, a law professor at New York University who studies antitrust issues, says the key difficulty for regulators is that the tech world has changed radically since the Microsoft antitrust case. Back then, Microsoft managed to outflank rivals like Netscape by bundling its Internet Explorer browser with its Windows operating system, and by using licenses and payments to prevent computer makers from installing competing browsers.
“In the Microsoft era people were unfamiliar with downloading, and nothing was as effective as getting the browser installed by the OEMs,” he said, referring to the original equipment makers, or computer manufacturers.
“But now, I’d be surprised if people aren’t fully at ease with downloading things from app stores, and people are familiar with having more than one app on their phone that does the same thing,” he said. “The EU has to tell an exclusion story, but it’s hard for me to see the exclusion story here.”
Consider, for instance, the market for messaging apps. Google runs a messaging service called Hangouts that comes bundled with many Android phones.
But Hangouts is no messaging juggernaut. In much of the world, that title belongs to two apps owned by Facebook — Messenger, which has 800 million active users a month, and WhatsApp, which has more than 1 billion.
Then there’s the popularity of the main Facebook app. As its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has acknowledged, the company was late to realize the importance of mobile phones; for years, its smartphone app was a kludgy mess, and until a few years ago it had no mobile revenue to speak of.
Google, meanwhile, bundled its own social network, Google+, with Android phones.
So if you were looking at the market a few years ago through the eyes of an EU antitrust regulator, you might have anticipated some trouble for Facebook on Android phones, and you might even have ventured that Google+ would become a hit.
That’s not how things turned out. Google+ is now all but dead. And Facebook did not just survive the shift to mobile phones, it became the unstoppable force in the industry.
The EU’s objections go beyond the supposed limits that Google places on Android’s app ecosystem. Another key charge involves Google’s dominance in Web search. Regulators say Google ensures it remains Android’s dominant search engine by requiring phone makers to install the Chrome browser on their phones and, in some instances, by paying manufacturers to position the Google Search app on the phone’s home screen.
First, the law professor, said the search issue isn’t as clear-cut as the question of whether Google has restricted rival apps. But he noted that the flexibility of Android — the fact that, in general, Google makes it pretty easy for device makers and users to tinker with the software — cuts in Google’s favor.
“I have this new Samsung Galaxy S5 that I haven’t used before, so I thought let’s see what happens if I try to install DuckDuckGo,” he said, referring to the privacy-focused search engine. “So I downloaded it, that was easy to do. And the first time that I searched for something I got a prompt that said, ‘Which one do you want to use — and do you want to use it just once or always?’ ”
First said the interaction was noteworthy: Android easily let him download a rival to Google’s offering, and it even asked if he wanted to set the rival as a default.
“It’s hard to see how the commission could do better than that,” he said.