The European Commission opened formal proceedings against Google, to “investigate in depth if the company’s conduct in relation to its Android mobile operating system as well as applications and services for smartphones and tablets has breached EU antitrust rules”.
The EC said that it launched an initial investigation, and received two complaints, which led it to take the current course of action. It will focus on areas such as whether Google has hampered the development and market access of rival apps and services by “requiring or incentivising” manufacturers to exclusively support Google’s alternatives, and the impact of it tying or bundling certain Google apps and services with others.
Also under the spotlight is whether Google has prevented manufacturers of Android devices from also supporting “modified and potentially competing versions of Android” on other products, hindering the development of alternative platforms.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, VP of Android engineering at Google, defended the company’s position, stating that the availability of its apps “helps manufacturers of Android devices compete with Apple, Microsoft and other mobile ecosystems that come preloaded with similar baseline apps”.
“And remember that these distribution agreements are not exclusive, and Android manufacturers install their own apps and apps from other companies as well. And in comparison to Apple — the world’s most profitable (mobile) phone company — there are far fewer Google apps pre-installed on Android phones than Apple apps on iOS devices,” Lockheimer continued.
There has long been criticism about the way in which Google has tied its apps and services into Android, making it difficult for rivals to gain a foothold in the market. While a stripped-down version of Android has been available which does not feature Google’s products and services (ASOP), which has been used to create alternative platforms, it is very much an all-or-nothing situation: for example vendors could not drop Google Maps in favour of, for example, HERE for Android, while still offering access to the Google Play store.
It has also been noted that Google has migrated more and more functionality out of ASOP, making it more difficult for vendors to offer devices based on a forked-Android platform.
Some companies have developed versions of Android which do not rely on Google’s services – Amazon’s Fire platform, the Android variant used in the former Nokia X line, and Yandex’s offering – although the work involved in replacing the Google products has been significant.
Indeed, it was reported late last year that the EC had been in touch with Yandex about its experiences trying to work with device makers to bring Yandex.Kit smartphones to market – with claims that at least one had entered into a relationship with Google which meant it could not support the alternative platform.
While it is beyond the scope of the European investigation, as far back as 2012 it was reported that Google had pressured Acer to pull a device powered by an Android fork created by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
The EC said that “the opening of formal proceedings does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation”.