In the tech industry, the current industry superpower always believes that it won't succumb to the same mistakes as its once-dominant predecessor. Microsoft, thus, was eager to prove it wouldn't become the next IBM, and of course it has become just that over the past decade. And Google, of course, has publicly stated its own goal to avoid becoming the next Microsoft.
There's just one problem: Google, like Microsoft, has fallen into a familiar trap and has indeed made the same mistakes as its predecessor—in this case, abusing its industry power to harm competitors while innovating at an ever-slower pace. And like Microsoft, what's putting the lie to Google's world view is an email trail that's as long as it is damning.
This email is coming to light courtesy of a once-obscure Massachusetts court case in which location-services firm Skyhook sued Google for patent infringement and, more tellingly, for threatening its partners and preventing them from using Skyhook's technology solutions. That latter claim, or what Skyhook called "business interference" at the time of its September 2010 suit, should ring familiar to long-time Microsoft followers. And it has clear antitrust implications.
"[Because of] Google's interference, Skyhook lost millions of dollars in royalties provided under the Motorola Contract," the original Skyhook complaint reads. "Google's interference also harmed Skyhook by preventing enhancements to Skyhook's database that would have occurred but for the deprivation of data from these phones."
Last week, a Massachusetts state judge denied Google's attempt to dismiss the case or grant a summary judgment. And that ruling unleashed a torrent of previously sealed email evidence in the case—evidence that, even in heavily redacted form, doesn't paint Google in a very positive light.
The issue comes down to this: If handset makers like Motorola and Samsung bundled Skyhook location services with their Android phones, Google would lose out on the corresponding data collection that its own location services provide back to Google. Company executives, upon hearing of these handset makers' plans to bundle Skyhook technologies and disable Google location services, threatened the phone makers with refusing to comply with vague and unrelated Android licensing requirements. So the handset makers then cancelled their deals with Skyhook. These events understandably triggered the Skyhook lawsuit.
"After we announced our deal with Motorola, Google went crazy," said Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan told The New York Times. "That's when Google went looking for compatibility compliance issues."
Google says its Android license grants it "contractual rights to collect end-user data" and that Skyhook's lawsuit is simply a "thinly veiled fishing expedition."
Internal Google email suggests, however, that Google acted quickly to undercut its "hungry" and "actively engaged" smaller rival. "I cannot stress enough how important Google's Wi-Fi location database is to our Android and mobile product strategy," an email message from Google's Location Service Product Manager Steve Lee to CEO Larry Page reads.
Fearing that other partners would adopt Skyhook's location services after its deals with Motorola and Samsung were announced, Google looked for an out. And it found one in the language of its own Android contracts. So Google contacted Motorola and Samsung and told them that using Skyhook's services meant that their handsets were no longer "Android Compatible." Both handset makers then dropped plans to use Skyhook's services and now use Google's location services instead. (Apple licenses Skyhook services for the iPhone.)
These email revelations are reminiscent of similar revelations during Microsoft's various antitrust trials dating back over a decade. But unlike with the original Microsoft antitrust case in the United States, Google executives today are aware that the email trail can come back to harm them. So, in one of the more humorous email exchanges revealed as part of this case, Google's Patrick Brady responds to an internal request for more information about Skyhook's services in June 2010 with the message, "PLEASE DO NOT! Thread-kill and talk to me offline with any questions." By that time, of course, Google had already coerced Motorola and Samsung, and it's likely the company was expecting to have to deal with the legal ramifications of those actions at some point.
Google, meet the future. It looks an awful lot like the past.