The European Commission charged Google with abusing its dominant position in the mobile market with its Android operating system by forcing or paying companies to install its own apps exclusively.
Mandatory Pre-Installed Apps
The main issue, according to the European Commission, seems to be that Google is requiring mobile manufacturers to pre-install Google Search and the Google Chrome browser, thus denying consumers a wider choice in the apps they use and stifling innovation.
The European Union’s charges are similar to the ones Yandex, the Russian search engine, made against Google recently. Yandex ended up winning that case last year. The current antitrust case joins another one the European Union opened against Google involving the company’s promotion of its shopping services at the expense of competitors.
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: "A competitive mobile internet [sic] sector is increasingly important for consumers and businesses in Europe. 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. These rules apply to all companies active in Europe. Google now has the opportunity to reply to the Commission's concerns."
The European Commission (EC) said that Google is considered dominant in the market for general Internet search services, licensable mobile operating systems, and app stores for the Android mobile operating system. The company has over 90 percent market share in each of these markets within the European Economic Area.
Google’s response to this accusation is that any company is free to use Android without Google services. However, EC’s argument is that if companies install the Play Store, then they also have to install Google Search. Therefore, the issue is not about being unable to use Android without any Google services, but that Google tries to maintain its monopoly in search through its monopoly in the Android app ecosystem. In other words, Google’s response doesn’t directly address the Commission’s argument.
Preventing Android Forks
Beyond pre-installing its own apps on Android, the Commission also took issue with the fact that Google prevents companies from using other operating systems that use Android source code. Android is supposed to be open source, but through the contracts Google makes OEMs sign, it can block them from using the code within competing operating systems.
For instance, if Amazon ever decided to sell a “Google Android” device, it wouldn’t be able to also sell its own Fire OS-based devices. Other Android manufacturers would also be unable to adopt Fire OS in their own devices without losing the ability to use Google’s Android as well.
Google justified this as an “anti-fragmentation agreement” that it makes with smartphone manufacturers. Google made the argument that it can’t allow other companies to make “Android-like” operating systems on which some Android apps wouldn’t work because of various incompatibility issues.
Google has a point here, but perhaps this could easily be solved as a trademark issue: just don’t let anyone use the name "Android" for any Android fork. Then it shouldn’t matter if those competing operating systems use Android code or not, because they wouldn’t technically be "Android" anyway.
Perhaps Google’s real issue with is that it doesn’t want other companies to use code it has spent years developing and in which it may have invested billions of dollars. However, the counter-point to that would be that it was Google that decided to open source its operating system, when it could’ve kept it proprietary, because it thought this would give it a much higher adoption rate compared to iOS. Now Google has to live with both the good and the “bad” consequences of that decision.
Open source software inevitably gets forked, because that’s sort of the whole point of it. Google already uses Chromium and Chrome as two separate projects. Google doesn’t seem to care too much what other people do with Chromium (even Opera uses it now), but they do care what they do with Chrome, because that is the company's proprietary product that’s based on Chromium.
Perhaps it’s time for Google to make a more clear distinction between the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) and Android, or Android and “Google Android” (or give it another name entirely). Then Google shouldn’t care what happens to the open source Android project, either.
Financial Incentives For Exclusivity
Another issue that the European Commission mentioned is that Google is giving financial incentives to companies if they exclusively install Google search on their devices. Given Google’s dominant position in the market, it’s not all that surprising that the EC would take issue with this. Intel was fined by the EU years ago over a similar issue--paying manufacturers to exclusively use its own chips in notebooks.
Google hasn’t directly responded to this accusation so far.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.