Google: If you think we're bad, you should take a look at Apple

Ad monster whines to EC about antitrust probe into Android

Google has responded to the European Commission's complaint that it is abusing its market power with the Android mobile phone operating system by griping that Microsoft and Apple are worse.

The ad and search giant points out in a neat animated GIF that of the 39 bundled apps on an iPhone, all 39 of them stem from Apple; on a Lumia 550, 39 of the 47 apps are from Microsoft; but lovely Google only has 11 of the 38 pre-installed apps on a Galaxy S7.

The argument is a little obtuse since the EC's biggest concern is not the percentage of apps but the fact that Google forces all Android-based phone manufacturers to include its full suite of Google apps – everything from Gmail to Maps to Chrome and YouTube – if they want to add the Play Store to the phone. Since the store is critical to finding and installing quality apps, and installing some security patches, and hence allows a device to function as a competent handheld, the EC argues that Google is abusing its power.

Google's response amounts to: if you think we're bad, you should see what others are up to.

Plus, it says with wide puppy-dog eyes, bundling its other products with the app store means that it can give people everything for free. If it stopped doing that – the pleading look turning to a gentle growl – it may have to start charging fees.

"This free distribution is an efficient solution for everyone - it lowers prices for phone makers and consumers, while still letting us sustain our substantial investment in Android and Play," Google's general counsel Kent Walker notes.

Number three

The response is the third by the company to a wide-ranging antitrust investigation by the EC. It looked at five areas of concern with Google: content scraping, maps and localized search, advertising, price-comparison features for online shopping, and Android. The EC lodged formal charges on the latter three and Google is finally responding – after a number of extensions – to the last one.

We don't have the full response from Google to Europe but it has produced what we can assume is a version of it arguments in an official blog post, complete with GIFs.

As well as pointing out it has fewer pre-installed apps than its smartphone rivals, and that it allows rival apps to be installed, Google also complains that the very fact that the iPhone exists is evidence that it is not abusing its position.

"To ignore competition with Apple," writes Walker, "is to miss the defining feature of today’s competitive smartphone landscape." In fact, Google says, if anything it has made competition possible. "European developers are able to distribute their apps to over a billion people around the world," his post argues. "Android is not a 'one way street'; it's a multi-lane highway of choice."

As for Google flexing its muscles on the hardware side, Walker paints its influence as "working with hardware makers to establish a minimum level of compatibility among Android devices." And argues that it gives manufacturers "wide latitude to build devices that go above that baseline."

Fragile

What's more, even though Google is one of the largest companies in the world and that there are well over a billion active Android users, the whole thing is, apparently, incredibly delicate.

"Open-source platforms are fragile," Walker warns. "They survive and grow by balancing the needs of all participants, including users and developers. The Commission’s approach would upset this balance, and send an unintended signal favouring closed over open platforms. It would mean less innovation, less choice, less competition, and higher prices. That wouldn’t be just a bad outcome for us. It would be a bad outcome for developers, for phone makers and carriers, and, most critically, for consumers."

To be fair to Google, it does take a lighter touch than other phone companies, and in some cases, its approach seems to be too lax – such as the broken security update approach where some phones sit unpatched for months or simply not at all.

But everything that Google says can be true and it can still be abusing its market power. Just because you help an old granny over the road doesn't mean you can kick a dog.

Plus, of course, Android devices now account for three-quarters of the smartphone market in Europe, and that share is increasing. If the EC didn't investigate and didn't put pressure on Google to make sure it is not abusing that enormous level of control, the commission wouldn't be doing its job.

As to where things will end up, it's hard to tell. The EC has a long history of wielding antitrust measures against US tech companies. In recent years, it has picked fights with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. In some cases, the EC has largely walked away; in others, it has spent years fighting for changes such as when it forced Microsoft to offer Windows without Windows Player.

There is of course one additional factor in play now: with president-elect Donald Trump entering the White House in the new year, the extremely cosy relationship between the Obama Administration and Google will come to an end. Without high-level political backing, Google may find its sheen is less bright in political quarters. ®

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