The EU vs Google
By Alberto Mingardi
My colleague Massimiliano Trovato and I have a piece in the last Politico Europe (you should do to page 23 to read it) on the matter. Thomas Vinje (head of global antitrust at Clifford Chance) is critical of Google and argues that Android’s open source architecture is basically a ruse.
We argue that this case will define Vestager’s “entire legacy as Europe’s antitrust czar” and that it “seems to have been built on shaky grounds”.
While it’s true that Android is used by more than 80 percent of smartphones worldwide, the history of the tech sector shows us that such arrangements can change very rapidly. At one point or another, Yahoo, Nokia and even MySpace were all thought to have conquered indisputable monopolies. Now we speak about them in the past tense.
Too often regulators assume that in tech markets the past is a good indicator of the future. It is not. And so, in assessing Android’s dominance it’s important to look carefully at the mobile market and how it affects consumer welfare.
Android is a Google product — but it’s also much more than that. It is an open-source software available in countless and potentially infinite variations, as anyone is allowed to tinker with it. It can be modified by lone wolves working in their garages or major corporations devising new products based on the operating system but unwilling to give away their brand identity or, more importantly, their revenue sources. For example, Amazon tablets run a customized version of Android.
Open systems are great, as all software guys will tell you, but there are trade-offs. Smartphones are complex devices that people ought to be able to use in the simplest ways. Google requires manufacturers to submit to compatibility checks, to preinstall its proprietary apps and to enter into so-called anti-fragmentation agreements, which prevent them from marketing devices based on competing Android renditions (known as “forks”). In doing so, Google is ensuring consumers will have a device they can understand intuitively.
Consumers now know what to expect when they buy a new Android device, in spite of it being an open system that could vary substantially between different developers’ versions. Ensuring a smooth and consistent user experience can be tricky in an open environment — thus the need for some degree of uniformity. That, in turn, is of paramount importance to app developers, as it provides them with a reliable audience for their coding efforts.
Consumers are not “locked in.” They can and do play a role in policing abuses or wrong strategies, either by personalizing their handsets (64 billion apps were downloaded from the Google Play store in 2017, according to intelligence firm Sensor Tower) or by switching over to a different model altogether.