As the scope of Google’s dispute with European competition regulators widens by the month, consumers in very different positions with very different preferences have been drawn into the debate over what is and what isn’t good for them. Another section of them was drawn in April 15, when the European Commission announced a formal investigation of Google’s business practices in the mobile phone operating system market that its Android has come to dominate.
Although this marks the most high-profile investigation of the popular operating system yet, it isn’t the first. Antitrust regulators in Russia announced a formal investigation in February based on complaints from Russian search engine Yandex that in order for Russian smartphone users to access the Google Play app store, Google required smartphone manufactures set Google as the default search engine. A few days later, the Northern California District Court threw out a lawsuit alleging similar bundling practices.
The European Commission describes its investigation in three parts. First, regulators will examine whether Google has used its market position to require or incentivize smartphone and tablet manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google’s own applications or services. Second, investigators will probe whether manufactures seeking to provide modified versions of Android on other devices received push-back or threats from Google. Third, the investigation will explore whether Google tied or bundled Android with other Google applications and services.
Google has raised a number of defenses and pro-consumer explanations for its behavior. For the average smartphone user, the most interesting is the desire to give the end user a great ‘out of the box’ experience. In other words, when you first power your new phone up, and you want to browse the internet, Google thinks it prudent to have its web browser Chrome waiting there for you to open. Or if your parents finally give in and get you that smartphone so you can play that video game with the goblins and the ogres, Google doesn’t want you to have to look any further than its Google Play app store to download it.
Pro-consumer explanations likely averted stateside antitrust charges against Google for its search engine practices, which makes a great out of box experience relevant to the European Commission’s investigation. Whether it holds any water depends on the consumer under consideration. For some consumers, like this writer, the out of box experience looks a lot like the out of the box for six months experience. A phone is a phone, and a smart one just means you can use it to Google, “how to operate a system,” when your techie friend starts spouting off about mods and peer-to-peer networks.
For that friend, however, the out of box experience entails a lot more. There are browsers to download, diagnostics to run, and apps to test. The fun is in the tinkering. For consumers like her, and larger consumers, like software developers and cellphone manufacturers, there isn’t much of a sandbox to play with when the sand’s all Android and the toys are all Google.
Luckily for Google, allegations like these needn’t lead to fines or dissolution. Microsoft stood accused of similar tactics with its Internet Explorer web browser and Windows operating system. The European Commission and Microsoft eventually struck a deal where Microsoft gave European users the option of picking their web browser during their PC’s initial boot-up. Perhaps Google and the commission can reach a similar agreement that covers both you and your friend.