April 26, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
The European Commission’s antitrust allegations against Google’s Android platform has brought renewed attention to competition among internet and mobile services. But similar to previous claims made against Google’s search engine, the arguments put forward by complainants are at odds with what is happening in the marketplace. Mobile today is a market driven by vibrant competition, with new apps being introduced every week and chatter about the newest innovations taking over the conversation. As is well-understood in competition law, consumers clearly benefit the most from such a competitive marketplace.
To understand the full story, it is important to note who first brought these accusations to the European Commission. One cannot ignore that those crying competition law violations are a competitor front group Fairsearch, rival search engine Yandex, an ad blocker called Disconnect, and competing app store Aptoide, which, as others have noted, is “mostly used for pirated apps.”
These complainants each have a business incentive to target Google – the consumers they claim are being harmed by alleged violations, on the other hand, actually benefit immensely from Android.
In reality, Android has fostered a tremendous amount of competition – both among smartphone manufacturers and software companies. The introduction of the Android operating system freed up smartphone manufacturers to compete on hardware, leading to more than 20,000 devices today from which consumers can choose. Android also gave software developers a common platform to reach consumers on many different devices, and today users download billions of apps a year.
This cross-platform compatibility has been so beneficial for competition that Microsoft and Amazon have produced their own Google-free Android based devices. In fact, Amazon’s popular Kindle Fire tablet is powered by the Amazon App store and uses Bing as its default search engine.
So far, competitors’ attempts to manufacture a “bad act” have not only been unpersuasive, they might actually make competition worse. For example, some competitors have complained that Android compatibility rules prevent companies from developing competing Android platforms. However, these rules are in place to make sure that Android apps are compatible with all Android powered devices. If these rules were removed, it would destroy the most important benefit Android has brought to the portable device ecosystem – compatibility. Indeed, fragmentation continues to be a top threat to Android.
As Saad Choudri, Chief Commercial Officer at mobile games company Miniclip, noted, the “Android platform is difficult to develop because of device fragmentation,” but Google has provided tools to developers to “get past those difficulties.”
Neither are the bundling complaints persuasive. Device manufacturers have the choice of installing no Google apps (as Amazon and Microsoft have done) or Google’s bundle of apps. A new phone may be preloaded with apps like Google Play but also feature apps and widgets created by Sprint, Samsung and Amazon. Once in consumers’ hands, they have the choice of using Google’s apps or easily replacing them with their preferred apps. For example: MapQuest, which competes with Google Maps, has been installed upwards of 10 million times.
Bundling is common in software, what is important is that consumer choice is left intact. This is a far cry from the Microsoft case, where Internet Explorer was set as the default browser and users were prevented from switching their default.
Opposite of introducing limitations to the tech world, the Android ecosystem has brought, and will continue to bring, impressive benefits to consumers worldwide. Consumers can browse over 1 million apps in Google’s Play Store, allowing them to choose between competing ideas to determine how they would prefer to view emails, search for products or watch movies. Should they choose, consumers can also widen their pool by downloading and using multiple app stores.
As Professor Herb Hovenkamp points out in a recent article on competition laws and technology, the best solution to any potential consumer harm is informational, and that’s no less true in the complaints about Android. Consumers simply need to know they have options, and even in this regard Android has choice built in. Android prompts users to select which app, even a competing app, users would like to perform a function and allows them to change their defaults at any time. Users can even disable all Google apps and remove them from their home screen. Competing mobile operating systems, like iOS, do not allow that kind of customization.
Similar to the complaints these groups and companies have made related to Google search, they fail at finding a bad act as it relates to Android. When examining evidence that consumers switched back to Google when Firefox changed users’ default browser, Professor Hovenkamp remarked “if Google is in fact a monopolist, why would someone switch back to it?” Professor Hovenkamp went on to say that if the explanation is that consumers prefer Google, then “antitrust has no business interfering.”
Ignoring the unmistakable vibrancy of mobile competition is the main flaw in any case against Android. When faced with an extremely open platform that fosters competition in both hardware and software, complainants’ allegations of “bad acts” simply don’t measure up.
David Balto is a former policy director of the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice. Balto has published research and authored scholarship with Google’s support on technology policy topics.