On Friday, Google filed a motion to have a US-based antitrust case targeting Android dismissed, arguing that its licensing requirements for the mobile OS have not led to higher prices for consumers. Instead, the search giant noted, smart phone makers can choose between a free version of the OS or a paid version that includes Google apps and services.
"Google's conduct. . . actually promotes lawful competition," the Google filing claims.
In many ways, the case is a matter of semantics: A basic version of Android, called Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is indeed freely licensable. However, it doesn't come with a lot of the technologies consumers associate with and expect from "Android," so most device makers also license Google's apps and services, which are not free. That licensing comes with certain requirements regarding the availability and placement of Google apps—you can't preinstall just Google Maps, for example, you need to accept the whole app suite—and the default search engine, which must be set to Google.
That search engine requirement is at the heart of the suit. Because while it's possible to ship an AOSP-based handset and claim it's an "Android phone," in reality, a true Android phone also includes those Google apps and services and the configuration defaults demanded by Google.
"Google badly wants default search engine status because it results in more paid search-related advertisements," the original lawsuit claimed, "which are the source of most of its billions and billions of dollars in annual profits." This is certainly true. But the question is whether it is illegal. This lawsuit was filed on behalf of two individuals who believe that they overpaid for their smart phones, but the suit is of course seeking class action status. The overreaching issue here is whether Android owns a monopoly in the smart phone or search markets. If so, then Google—now legally a monopolist—must operate its intertwined businesses under a different set of rules.
The case, of course, mirrors the decades-earlier antitrust problems that once faced Microsoft and Windows. In that US-based case, Microsoft was found to have illegally bundled so-called "middleware" applications in Windows that would disadvantage competing software products because most consumers don't change the defaults or take the time to install and compare other applications.
Google, however, notes that even those device makers who opt for the paid Google apps and services in Android—and virtually all of them do with the notable exceptions of Amazon.com and Microsoft Mobile/Nokia—can still preload competing applications on their Android handsets too. While they generally may not do so, consumers are also free to change the search engine and make other configuration changes to their phones as well.
It is perhaps notable that this isn't the only antitrust case related to Android and internet search that Google now faces, and should the firm somehow dodge a bullet in the US, it will continue to face ever-more vigilant scrutiny here and around the world. The firm is still embroiled in an attempted settlement with EU regulators over search violations, and this past week, Yelp joined a growing chorus of competitors who think Google is getting off too lightly. A competitor has launched an antitrust complaint in Europe based on Google's lock-in strategy with its Play Store (which is part of that Google apps and services requirement).
A hearing on Google's dismissal request is set for October.