Will your company’s next brace of mobile phones be based on Google’s Android system? If so, Google is trying to make them easier to set up by putting its browser, Chrome, its Play Store and the Google Search app on in advance.
The European Commission is not happy with this as it may be uncompetitive. If Google makes it more or less compulsory for phone manufacturers to include these apps, it’s more difficult for the competition to get their apps on instead, so there’s an unfair advantage.
People who have been in IT or at least following it for more than a decade may find this scenario more than a little familiar.
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In the early part of this century the EC also looked into Microsoft’s conduct towards its competitors. It came down against Microsoft and forced it to disclose more code and make itself more open.
The parallels between the old Microsoft anti-trust case and the current Google issue are not exhaustive. As this chronology confirms, a great deal of the problem was the perception that developers needed to jump through hoops in order to make their apps (not that they were called apps at the time) compatible with Windows, then the dominant operating system on the dominant device.
Google goes out of its way to make its operating system open. However, the another element of the old Microsoft case was the company’s insistence on putting its media player and browser onto new computers. The competition objected because it felt that if people had Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer on their computers already, they were unlikely to opt for, say, Chrome or the then-popular Firefox instead.
In 2009 the EU agreed and forced Microsoft to offer computers that asked which browser people wanted during the set-up process, to the bewilderment of the growing non-technical community who nonetheless wanted a PC and hadn’t realised there was a choice. The browser and media player issue were side issues, as outlined on this Wikipedia page (scroll some way down for the detail), but it’s in this respect that the current case resembles the old one.
Precedent can be important
The problem for Google is that the law moves slowly and if the old case has set a precedent then the EC already has an advantage. However, there are key differences.
When Microsoft faced the EC and lost, a PC without Windows was a rarity outside the IT-savvy market (who would have thought nothing about substituting their preferred players and browsers anyway). Microsoft had around 90% of the market and that was down on previous years because phones and consumer music devices had put Apple back into contention.
Fast forward to 2009 and although Google’s Android has a commanding position, the competition isn’t down to single per centage points as it was in the Microsoft case. Figures from Gartner in 2015 put Android’s share of all devices at 54 per cent, mostly because laptops are still important and there are no Android laptops. There is also the issue of the evolving end user.
In 1998 when Sun Microsystems first brought the case that ended with Microsoft being forced to make its browser move, computers outside the workplace were relatively uncommon, The idea of changing parts of the system that the software provider said were core to the workings was scary, and in the workplace the IT department typically had a much firmer grip on any changes people wanted to put in place.
In an era when devices are available on the High Street and easily understood by modern users, who are happy bringing their own device to work rather than being spoonfed something corporate, the question is very different. The EU’s conclusion may not be the same as it was seven years ago as the backdrop is different.
Android and IT support
The technology community should be watching this case carefully. If the EU forces Google to abandon bundling, say, the Google Play Store with the Android system, you can expect a lot more queries about where people can obtain their apps than you’d have had before (or just instructions on how to download the Play Store). Not having Chrome or Google Search may feel peculiar to many, and if a corporate system is accessed through a browser then the IT professionals had better make sure it’s compatible with whichever browser the user might fancy installing rather than assuming Chrome as the default option.
Google is arguably revisiting the old Microsoft case with more modern clothing. If the EC rules that things haven’t changed all that much, it could revisit the ruling as well – and the technology community had better be ready.