Opinion: The EU's $5 billion strike against Android is pointless

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When most people think “Antitrust”, they likely think less about the awful 2001 film of the same name starring Ryan Phillipe and Rachel Lee Cook, and more about the decade-long fight by the US and the EU against Microsoft. 

The battle was largely fought over Microsoft’s then dominance of the PC operating system marketplace, where it constituted default installation on roughly 80% of all new PC sales. 

At the core of this was Internet Explorer, the Windows-bundled and subsequently most used internet browser through most of the late nineties and early 2000s – the governments claimed that this dominance prevented other companies from having any input.

Although Microsoft settled with the US Government, avoiding any of the original judgments that may have involved structural separation, it did have to make some modifications to how default programs were installed and in European markets to this day it must directly offer up competing options for browsers when the OS is setup for the first time. 

Outside of that, most of Microsoft’s issues were largely self-inflicted – it got too comfortable and completely missed out on being a player in the new mobile markets where growth has now centralised. It’s left playing catch-up now; while still a behemoth, it plays second fiddle to Google and Apple, both new and old foes it once ridiculed.

Same game; new players

To understand the EU’s argument against Google requires a bit of understanding about how Android works. There are largely two major flavors of Android. The first, AOSP (Android Open Source Project), is effectively a Google-maintained stock version of Android that can be forked, skinned and changed in any number of ways. 

There are no conditions to its use and anyone, from phone makers to someone building their own touchscreen OS in their garage, can access it as they please. It’s this element of freedom that means most Chinese OEMs access this version as they can customize it with custom stores, apps, and services without any oversight or restrictions from Google.

The second flavor is known as the “Google Play” edition of Android. This version, while still free to OEMs, comes with a legal agreement that requires certain standards to be met in regards to its offering – such as regular security updates – and crucially, that Google’s search and suite of services are provided on the device at first boot. 

This includes a requirement that a Google account is created on boot, that Google search is the default search engine, and so on. OEMs are still able to provide competing options for apps (like calendars, photos and messaging), skin the OS and so forth, but they cannot fork in a manner that removes the underlying Google Play API.

This is important for a number of reasons – Google still relies heavily on revenue from search and ads to provide the bulk of its cashflow, and with Android holding 80% of the global smartphone market, they have effectively billions of mobile devices accessing search and other services every second. 

Relinquishing control over this edition means that Google potentially loses that default access to search via Chrome and its iconic search bar, as well as new Gmail, YouTube and Play customers. It’s this market power, like Microsoft had with Windows, that has the EU stewing.

The case as put forward by the EU

The EU claims that Google’s control over default function agreements with suppliers, which block competing app stores, search, browsers, and other functions, restrict competition. 

Which is probably true – why bother installing Firefox or Opera or Edge when Chrome is already there, synced with your Google services for easy collaboration. Why seek out another search provider when Google is arguably the best and already conveniently ready to go via the bar or Google Assistant? But the problem here is that, even if the EU has a solid case, it is far too late to the party.

People don’t feel gated into using Google applications – they prefer them. Most customers are not crying out for Android to become more competitive or to provide more power to outside companies – this was largely the case for most of Android’s formative years and created the large bulk of the fragmentation and security issues that plagued it early on. 

This also pushed Google to start putting more power inside Google Play and pushing OEMs to sign agreements that forced them to make more regular updates. It’s almost like the EU sort of understood this – its ruling left it to Google to figure out what to do to stop Chrome and search installing as the default options in Europe.

How's Android different to Windows?

But that’s just it. Unlike Windows – which arguably made it difficult to find and install other options – Android does not. You can go on the app store and download any browser you want and make it your default. You can change your default search provider. You can install other assistants and they can plug into your (other) calendars. 

There is no requirement that you use Google apps outside making an account for activation. Yeah, Google’s apps are there, but you can delete them if you use, say, Outlook and Edge, or Firefox and Yahoo Mail, and the OS will permanently be happy with those choices.

Removing Search and Chrome from Android will basically just add another step to the process. Google has appealed the ruling which buys it another few years, in which time it continues to work on its likely successor (Fuchsia) but even if it eventually loses it’s likely that removing the apps from default will simply mean a prompt at first boot that simply asks “Do you want Chrome and Google Search?”.

Unlike Windows, which was mandated to explicitly provide a number of competing options, Google was not – meaning that it could easily loophole its way around this restriction by heavily detailing the reasons why not using their services will diminish user experience.

What about the big fruit of tech?

On a side note, we’ve noticed that many people have asked why Apple, who run a significantly more anti-competitive environment, aren’t being taken to task by the EU? The short answer is this: Marketshare. 

Apple is a huge player in smartphones, but at best estimates they control only 1/5-1/4 of the space that Google does. The EU tends to go after companies that control lopsided amounts of control in any particular industry, which is why previous fines have been levied to companies like Microsoft, Intel, and Facebook.

Unfair targeting? Maybe. But Apple’s fortunes are largely related to the staggering margins it makes on its profits, as opposed to the smaller amount per user on a higher volume that Google receives.