European Commission Goes After Google’s Walled Garden

April 21st, 2016

Apple is often criticized for having a closed ecosystem, a so-called “walled garden” that allegedly deprives customers of choice. But the concept can be misleading. You do have an expansive variety of software available for Mac and iOS. Software available for iOS and the Mac App Store is carefully curated for security and meeting the company’s standards, but there’s plenty to choose from. With a Mac, third party software vendors offer lots of variety for apps that Apple doesn’t accept.

But this isn’t a discussion about Apple’s policies, the plusses or minuses, but about that other platform that’s supposed to be “open” and thus offers customers more choices. While that may, in part, be true, there appear to be some complications and limits. Thus the European Commission, better known as the EC, is going after Google for violating European Union antitrust rules with the Android platform.

Specifically the EC has reached a “preliminary view” that Google has “abused its dominant position by imposing restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators.”

What sort of restrictions? Well, “based on our investigation thus far,” states EC Commissioner Margarethe Vestager, who heads the division that manages competition policy, “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.”

Now on the surface, that appears to sound more like a complaint against Apple than Google. Obviously, the carriers cannot change the software you get on your iPhone. It comes the same wherever you buy it, and only Apple can push updates, other than special carrier-specific patches that are fed from time to time. And at least you can receive timely updates. With an Android handset, it’s hit or miss and mostly miss.

So what’s got the EC’s dander up? Well, it’s much about Google’s dominant share of the search market, but it’s also about Android and the Google Play app store. So Google is accused of requiring handset makers to include Google’s search, making it the default search engine, and installing the Chrome browser. Supposedly this is a requirement for being allowed to install other Google apps.

Another complaint is that manufacturers are prevented from installing operating systems based on the Android open source code, which seems doubly strange since it is, of course, open source. That should mean any manufacturer, or even an individual customer, ought to be able to install it if that’s what they want.

A third set of complaints are about paying financial incentives — essentially bribes — for manufactures and carriers so they preinstall Google Search on their devices.

So to be able to install Play, Google Search has to be set up as the default search engine, and Chrome the default browser. This practice supposedly makes it difficult for third parties to get in on the act and have their own search engines and browsers set up as defaults on an Android smartphone.

In response, Google claimed its agreements with its partners “are entirely voluntary” and that nobody is forced to use Android with Google’s apps and services. Google also asserts that manufactures can add apps from other manufacturers too, including Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and the proprietary apps developed by handset makers and carriers.

Now I’m no fan of Android. I think it’s too cumbersome for regular people to use, and I’m concerned about security problems due to the difficulty in getting OS updates. But there’s certainly no dearth of junkware on an Android smartphone. I saw a mess of it on two Samsung Galaxy smartphones that I put into service for a number of months. Indeed, I really just wanted to trim it all down to Google and a few of my favorite third-party apps, at least the ones available at Google Play.

If found guilty, Google could be fined somewhere in the billions of dollars, which even a company with the cash reserves of a Google would find somewhat daunting. They’d also have to allow more freedom — and, unfortunately — clutter on Android gear as a result. It would mean that someone buying a new Android handset couldn’t be sure they were getting a configuration that essentially matches the one on the Android handset they already own. With different amounts of manufacturer and carrier junkware, it’s already confusing.

Now I understand about search. That’s Google’s primary source of income. The revenue from Google Play is far less. So it’s understandable they wouldn’t want to make it easy for you to use a different search engine, although you can sideload apps from other sources. But that takes an extra step or two to accomplish, and there’s no guarantee that the apps you install will not be malware ridden. At least you have a decent chance of staying secure if you stick with Google Play, though security apps are plentiful if you want extra protection.

I wouldn’t guess how this will turn out. Clearly the authorities in Europe are asserting a stronger position than the U.S., where Microsoft escaped an antitrust ruling with a few wrist slaps that didn’t hurt the company. What hurt Microsoft had more to do with failing to recognize the mobile revolution, and relying much too much on the hopes and dreams for Windows everywhere.

Just making it easier to use other search engines, and making it possible to get needed OS and security updates, would be more than enough in my view. Making the Android ecosystem more complicated in the interests of allowing additional competition will only make a messy situation that much messier.

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