Is Google’s “dominant position” in mobile abusive?

This post was originally shared on Medium in 2016. With all the anti-trust action currently happening in both the US and Europe, it’s still quite relevant. In some ways, things have not progressed very much at all!

Given the things that Google didn’t say in their response, I wonder if they agree? Contrary to some commentators, I think what they do goes beyond playing hardball. I’ve no idea whether that’s illegal but they’re certainly not being nice to their “partners.”

Let’s go through some of the point they make.

Our partner agreements are entirely voluntary — anyone can use Android without Google. Try it — you can download the entire operating system for free, modify it how you want, and build a phone. And major companies like Amazon do just that.

This is true, but we’ll come back to it as there are strings attached that Google conveniently fail to mention.

Manufacturers who want to participate in the Android ecosystem commit to test and certify that their devices will support Android apps. Without this system, apps wouldn’t work from one Android device to the next. Imagine how frustrating it would be if an app you downloaded on one Android phone didn’t also work on your replacement Android phone from the same manufacturer.

Also true, but it’s unclear how this is relevant. No one said that Google shouldn’t support Android.

Any manufacturer can then choose to load the suite of Google apps to their device and freely add other apps as well. For example, phones today come loaded with scores of pre-installed apps (from Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Google, mobile carriers, and more).

What they don’t mention is that Google’s closed source apps are all-or-nothing. Do you want Maps? Well, you have to install all the other apps, too. Want to use DuckDuckGo instead of Google search? Nope. Even the placement of Google’s app icons are stipulated in the agreement.

Also, referencing back to the first point, what if you want to offer one phone that has, say, Amazon’s version of Android and another that uses Google’s? After all, it’s open source. Again, you’re out of luck. Google’s contract says that you can’t ship “forked” versions of Android on any devices if you ship Google’s closed source apps on some of them. (Remember the days when Microsoft charged OEMs for a licence for Windows for every PC that they shipped, whether or not it had Windows installed on it?)

If any part of Google’s relationship with manufacturers is anti-competitive, it’s this.

Of course while Android is free for manufacturers to use, it’s costly to develop, improve, keep secure, and defend against patent suits. We provide Android for free, and offset our costs through the revenue we generate on our Google apps and services we distribute via Android.

Google have every right to make money from Android, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to stifle competition.

And it’s simple and easy for users to personalize their devices and download apps on their own ? including apps that directly compete with ours. The popularity of apps like Spotify, WhatsApp, Angry Birds, Instagram, Snapchat and many more show how easy it is for consumers to use new apps they like. Over 50 billion apps have been downloaded on Android.

True but it’s important not to underestimate the power of defaults. Even if you could remove some of the pre-installed apps (which you probably can’t), the vast majority of users won’t.

Overall, of the points they make, most are true but mostly irrelevant. And in the most important paragraph they say they’re in favour of choice without any mention of the strings that come attached.

Missing out some of the less palatable aspects of their contracts with phone manufacturers, of course, does not mean that Google are guilty of anything. But it does make me a little suspicious.