Google's patents bid may prompt showdown with Microsoft
EU antitrust complaint from MS adds fuel to fire
Microsoft brings EU complaint against Google ...
The other area where Google is facing rising pressure in the law courts is in business practices. US federal probes into possible breaches of consumer privacy, with the sharing of personal data gathered from mobile apps, initially focused mainly on Apple, but are extending to Android too. And in the field of anti-trust, there are all kinds of ironies in Microsoft making a complaint to the European Commission. Microsoft, rather than Google or Oracle, could be Google's chief nemesis in mobile, as the Windows behemoth adopts all strategies to strengthen its platforms against Google's, and to take a last shot at being a mobile web leader.
In patents, it is now sure to lend its support, behind the scenes, to Nokia's IPR wars, as it has done tacitly to those of HTC, its former handset BFF. That initially hurts Apple most directly, but the ripple effect will soon be felt by Android. And now Microsoft is extending its hostilities to the competition courts.
The Redmond giant has turned the tables of history and made an antitrust complaint against Google – just as the search giant may be playing into its enemy's hands by introducing some Microsoft-style approaches to Android. The company is reportedly stepping up its efforts to gain stronger control over the supposedly open source platform, a strategy that could play to Microsoft's advantage by narrowing the gap between Android and WP7.
Microsoft is filing its complaint with the European Commission, scene of some of its own greatest antitrust setbacks. This is part of the ongoing EC probe into Google's practices, and Microsoft SVP and general counsel Brad Smith says the Windows giant has turned to Europe because Google's behaviour is more extreme there (it has 95 per cent of the search market in the EU, whereas in the US, Microsoft Bing has succeeded in gaining 25 per cent share).
In a blog posting, Smith says Google is demonstrating a "broadening pattern of walling off access to content and data that competitors need to provide search results to consumers and to attract advertisers".
He gives six examples, such as alleged efforts to block rival search engines from accessing YouTube, and to discriminate against rival advertising platforms. There is one specifically mobile claim, that Google has blocked Windows Mobile from being able to play YouTube videos.
... as Google becomes more Microsoft-like
Meanwhile, in another part of the mobile world, Google continues to weigh the balance between openness and control in Android. Recently it said it would delay open-source access to the Honeycomb tablet version indefinitely, saying that if partners were able to use the release for non-tablet devices like phones, they would come up with sub-standard experiences. Now Google may be going further to limit vendors' freedom of action, in order to achieve a more harmonised, consistent (and possibly Google-centric) Android experience.
According to reports in Digitimes, Google is working with ARM, whose processor design underpins most Android gadgets, on a standardised reference platform. This could be part of a broader push to take a more prescriptive approach in order to improve quality control and fight fragmentation: an approach closer to that of Apple, or of Microsoft, whose limitations on its WP7 licensees are far more rigid than in Windows Mobile (though MIPS, which has pinned high hopes for its own mobile processor ambitions on Android, says any reference designs remain multi-architecture).
Reports in BusinessWeek say that Google will, in future, insist on "non-fragmentation clauses" in contracts with developers. In order to gain early access to new Android releases, companies will have to get their product plans approved by Google. Of course, while that could help cut down on poor quality or rogue implementations, it could also stifle innovation. Google has, in the past, conceded that it focuses its own efforts mainly on phones, but that the open platform has allowed third parties to adapt Android for a far wider class of devices including netbooks, set-top boxes and media players.
And Google critics will also be quick to point out that these restrictive contracts could also be used to disadvantage developers of apps that might compete with Google in critical revenue areas such as map- ping and search – or even to discourage OEMs from supporting rival services on their homescreens, as Motorola has done by defaulting to Yahoo or Baidu on some models.
There have always effectively been two tiers of Android partners, with the chosen few (particularly Motorola) gaining early access to new developments, plus considerable development and marketing help from Google. This was reinforced by the recent release of Honeycomb to a few major partners such as Motorola and Samsung, followed by the decision to postpone open access.
Citing unnamed sources, BusinessWeek says some companies have already made complaints to the US Department of Justice about Google's new rules, and names LG, Toshiba and Facebook as firms that might have been impacted by the two-tier structure. It also says some chipmakers have received priority treatment from Google in being able to optimise their processors for Android, and if the search giant decides to lay down definitions on core hardware specs – as Microsoft does with its WP7 chassis program – it could disadvantage Intel.
If Google does not pull back from these reported tactics, it will be removing one key source of differentiation between Android and iOS or WP7, especially for OEMs and developers. That still leaves Microsoft with a lot of catching up to do, though it says over 1.5m developer tools have now been downloaded for WP7, and 36,000 people have paid to join the AppHub programmer community for the new OS. From that effort, about 11,500 apps have been made available, with Microsoft insisting it does not count "lite apps" such as wallpapers. Nearly 7,500 paid-for apps are available in the App Marketplace. Microsoft will upgrade the tools soon, showing off the chances at its MIX11 conference from 12 April.
Copyright © 2011, Wireless Watch
Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.
Sponsored: RAID: End of an era?