Anti-Google lobbying group FairSearch lobbed an antitrust grenade at Google’s Android operating system yesterday, complaining to the European Union that it violates competition laws. Unfortunately, this week’s release of the HTC First — the “Facebook Phone” — may cause the grenade to bounce back at FairSearch.
The FairSearch Complaint
We covered FairSearch’s complaint earlier, that Android is a “Trojan Horse” product that forces makers to include Google products.
Actually, what we covered earlier was FairSearch’s statement about the complaint. It hasn’t released the actual complaint itself to the public, which is disappointing, as it might help explain some of the allegations that FairSearch makes that don’t appear to be held up.
Let’s look at the accusation (I’ve broken apart the original two paragraphs into four smaller ones to better focus on key charges):
Google achieved its dominance in the smartphone operating system market by giving Android to device-makers for ‘free.’
But in reality, Android phone makers who want to include must-have Google apps such as Maps, YouTube or Play are required to pre-load an entire suite of Google mobile services and to give them prominent default placement on the phone, the complaint says.
This disadvantages other providers, and puts Google’s Android in control of consumer data on a majority of smartphones shipped today.
Google’s predatory distribution of Android at below-cost makes it difficult for other providers of operating systems to recoup investments in competing with Google’s dominant mobile platform, the complaint says.
The Complaint’s Three Issues
That all boils down to these key accusations:
- Android is given away below cost
- Google requires phone makers to install what I’ll call “must-carry” Google apps
- Google apps must have “prominent default placement”
Now to each issue.
Android Below Cost?
It’s true that Google doesn’t charge anyone to use Android code. That’s in contrast to Microsoft, which last year was reported to charge $25 to $40 per phone.
Is that a violation of antitrust law? I can’t say — I’m not an antitrust expert. But if just giving something away for free is an issue, organizations like Mozilla might be in trouble. So might one of FairSearch’s key backers, Microsoft, which provides several free products.
It’s also important to remember that just getting the code for free doesn’t mean the handset makers have no costs. They have to spend substantial time and energy to make Android work on particular devices. There is a time cost, a significant one, involved.
The issue of giving Android away for free is likely more problematic for Google if it is actually linked to Google somehow using its stature in the mobile market to push its app-based products. How dominant Google may be will face a challenge. It does lead in many surveys, but Apple in particular has a sizable share. It also can vary by country.
Does Google require that its apps be carried? First, you have to ask what type of “Android” device we’re talking about, because as my What Is The One True Android & How “Open” Is It? story from last year covers, not all Android-based devices are considered Android.
Forked Android is a popular way to describe a device that isn’t submitted for Google to review, doesn’t carry Android branding, and where makers do whatever they want. Amazon’s Kindle Fire is an example of this, where among other things, it uses Bing as the default search, rather than Google.
Android Compatible is Google’s term for a device submitted to it for technical review, to ensure it can run third-party apps properly. It doesn’t involve, as best I can tell, any requirement for particular Google applications to be carried.
Once a device is deemed Android compatible, according to Google’s public FAQ on the topic, the maker can seek additional permission to:
- Use the Android trademark
- Have the Google Play app store on the device
- Seek permission to have YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail & other Google apps on the device
The latter two in the list above relate to FairSearch’s “must-carry” allegation. Device makers going the official “compatible” route probably don’t want to create their own app store. They need Google Play so that users of their Android product can download apps.
Must-Carry Google Apps Requirement?
To get Google Play, makers with compatible Android devices have to seek a separate license from Google. What’s required to gain that license, what Google might make them agree to, or not agree to, isn’t publicly stated. It probably varies from maker-to-maker.
Similarly, to have an app like YouTube or Google Maps on a phone, makers have to seek a separate license for apparently for each app, according to the FAQ, though it’s likely they can negotiate a license for several. As with Google Play, the requirements aren’t said and likely vary.
Is Google cutting deals that forces handset makers to carry whatever its “entire suite” of apps is, just to get the “must have” ones? There’s nothing public out there I can find to either prove or disprove this claim by FairSearch.
As an aside, it would sure feel more open if Google better defined who can include its apps or not publicly. It also doesn’t feel particularly “Googley” that anyone with a compatible device should have to license some of these apps. Why doesn’t Google just include them in Google Play like other developers do?
The Google “Suite” Of Apps?
I can make a guess at what the supposed suite might include. To do this, I’m drawing from the listed apps that are part of the Samsung Galaxy S3. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the HTC First and the important role it plays in a bit.
- Google Play Store
- Google Maps
- Google Search
- Google Latitude
- Google Play Books
- Google Play Movies
- Google Plus
- Google Talk
- Google Places
- Google Navigation
- Google Downloads
That’s 13 apps from Google in all, with the three named “must haves” by FairSearch shown at the top. Maybe Google negotiated with Samsung to get it to carry things like Google+ and Google Talk, if Samsung wanted Google Maps and YouTube. Maybe Samsung wanted all 13 apps. But without FairSearch sourcing this type of accusation, it remains just that — an accusation.
Non-Google Apps Also Get Included
Just because Google apps are on the phone doesn’t mean alternative apps aren’t also available, pre-loaded. The Galaxy S3 from AT&T also comes with:
- AT&T Navigator
- S Voice
Prominent Default Placement?
Does it matter if there are alternatives, if Google is the default for everything? It’s not, which leads to debunking the “prominent default placement” claim about Google apps that FairSearch makes.
On the right is what my Samsung Galaxy S3 looked like when I turned it on for the first time last year and got to the home screen after basic setup. My default browser was the generic Android browser. My default email was the default email app. Only two of the 13 Google “suite” of apps were present on the home screen: the Google Search bar and the Google Play Store.
If I wanted a Google app, I had to go digging, selecting the “Apps” icon in the lower right corner, then locating the apps that were listed alphabetically, mixed with non-Google apps.
That’s prominent default placement? That the apps aren’t on the home page? Not to me, it isn’t.
The Facebook Phone
As I said, I don’t think most of Google’s apps are “prominent” on the Galaxy S3 because it takes at least one tap to reach them through the app box and two taps if you count the second tap needed to launch one, or to move it to the home screen.
Still, that’s at least far better than the situation with the HTC First. To reach any of Google’s apps, you literally have to go through Facebook first. Apps are all behind the “Cover Feed” screen that lets you interact with Facebook.
You can see how it looks on the right. There are no apps listed all. No search box for Google, either. You interact with Facebook content through Cover Feed, unless notifications from other apps you’ve purposely enabled appear.
Want to use an app like YouTube? You have to drag your picture icon from the bottom center of the screen up to where an app icon will appear. Then you get a list of apps listed alphabetically, Google’s mixed in among the others.
At least it’s still at most a two tap process, as with the Samsung. But unlike the Samsung, there’s no way to make that one tap. There is literally no home screen to put a Google app icon on, even if you want, unless you disable the Facebook Home feature of the phone.
Remember, this is all happening on a phone that Google considers to meet the criteria to officially be called Android, a phone made by one of its chief competitors. Google probably never expected that Android would be taken to such an extreme, that Facebook would “spoon” Android rather than “fork” it, as MG Siegler wrote last week.
But Facebook did, and in doing so, it has created a phone that flies in the face of FairSearch’s complaint that you can’t do an Android phone without featuring Google all over the place.
- Facebook Launches ‘Home’ – A New Android Home Screen Experience
- New Google Antitrust Complaint In Europe Calls Android A “Trojan Horse”
- While “Facebook Home” Keeps Google, Search Is Harder To Reach
- For Consumers, Android Is More “Clopen” Than Open
- Google Doesn’t Require Google Search On Android, Despite What FairSearch & Microsoft Want You To Believe