EU Antitrust probe will make Android leaner & meaner

meIn

early 2000 Google employees Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel were sat in a

company meeting being a nuisance. “[We] kept kind of forcing them to put

it up there,” recalls

Buchheit. “And because we wouldn’t let it fall off the list, it made it

onto the final set and took on a life of its own from there. Amit

started writing it down all over the building, on whiteboards

everywhere. It’s the only value that anyone is aware of, right?” “Don’t

be evil” was born.

Thirteen years later Google finds itself at

the opposite end of the spectrum, at the centre of a spiralling EU

antitrust investigation. It has already spent the last three years under

scrutiny for manipulating search results to promote its own services, but now Microsoft-led lobby group ‘FairSearch’ wants to bring Android into the mix as well.
Androidevil
The Case for the Prosecution
“Google

is using its Android mobile operating system as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to

deceive partners, monopolize the mobile marketplace, and control

consumer data”, said FairSearch counsel Thomas Vinje in an official announcement

this week. “We are asking the Commission to move quickly and decisively

to protect competition and innovation in this critical market. Failure

to act will only embolden Google to repeat its desktop abuses of

dominance as consumers increasingly turn to a mobile platform dominated

by Google’s Android operating system.”

FairSearch argues Google

only achieves its dominance in the smartphone market (approximately 70

per cent at the end of 2012) by giving away Android ‘free’ but that “in

reality, Android phone makers who want to include must-have Google apps

such as Maps, YouTube or Play are required to pre-load an entire suite

of Google mobile services and to give them prominent default placement

on the phone”. The result, it claims, puts rivals at an unfair

disadvantage and sees Google increasingly gain control of consumer data

on mobile as it has on the desktop.

How is the arguably greater

control exerted by Apple, BlackBerry and indeed Microsoft itself enforced on their own mobile platforms not

caused cries of hypocrisy? Because such practises are only punishable

when a company achieves a monopoly. Something FairSearch argues Android

now has.

haloThe Case for the Defence
If

this all sounds familiar, that’s because it should. In 2006 the

EU ordered Microsoft to pay €497 million, at the time its largest ever

fine, for exploiting the 90 per cent monopoly Windows

enjoyed by forcing hardware partners to pre-load its entire suite of

desktop services. At the heart of it was Windows Media Player and

Microsoft was told to produce a version of Windows without Windows Media

Player within 90 days. Yes, technology’s power shifts are a game of

musical chairs.

That said, Google’s legal position in 2013 is

arguably fair stronger than Microsoft’s in 2006. For a start Android is

open source and anyone is able to fiddle with the OS

as they choose and pre-install whatever services they like. Android

without core Google services installed doesn’t get Google certification,

but that seems a fair compromise. Similarly Android offers users the choice to

switch default apps away from Google’s core services.

Meanwhile the allegation that Android has an unfair advantage in being free is somewhat disingenuous. In 2011 HTC admitted it pays Microsoft a minimum of $5 per Android handset in patent royalties and Microsoft’s own financial results have shown it earns more from Android patent payments than it does from Windows Phone.

dark android
The Future – Be Evil?

While

the only certainty in sizeable legal disputes is that lawyers get rich,

the bigger question for Google is what the investigation means for the

future of Android. Lose and Android could become even more fragmented as

any semblance of core structure is lifted. Win and Google remains

between a rock and a hard place as Amazon, Samsung and now Facebook lead

the high profile partner rebellions arguably exploiting Android for

their own ends.

Increasingly the answer looks like greater

control. Locking down Android would ensure a more consistent, less

fragmented user experience that pulls key partners back into line or

cuts them adrift.

Inevitably this would see Android lose market share,

but remaining free would surely still ensure market dominance while keeping it

under the threshold for future antitrust investigations. With Google

CEOs ever more vocal about unified design and ever more critical of

fragmentation, the decision may already have been made.

After

creating their famous slogan Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel both left

Google for start-ups. Watching companies grow up often isn’t fun…