Bloomberg reports based on information from anonymous sources that the Federal Trade Commission has opened an anti-trust investigation into Google (warning: link includes obnoxious autoplaying video) for the practice of bundling its services (search, maps, YouTube, etc.) with Android devices. This echoes a similar anti-trust probe going on in Europe.

Reminiscent of the 1998 probe into Microsoft for favoring Internet Explorer in Windows installations, this investigation seeks to determine whether Google’s bundling deal prevents competing services from being installed in the operating system.

It’s worth noting that, under Google’s Android compatibility license, these services must be licensed separately from the rest of Android by OEMs who want to release Android devices. Although it used to be fairly common to find cheap Android devices with no access to the Google Play Store or other Google services (especially in the Android 1.* and 2.* days, before Android was adapted to tablet format and any Google-Play-compatible device had to have a cellular transciever), these days most if not all device OEMs willingly comply. Even the open-source Cyanogenmod makes it possible to install Google Apps, though you have to download it and install it as a separate package.

In fact, the only major Android device manufacturer that I know of who doesn’t license Google’s services is Amazon, who replaces the Play Store with its own app store and Google services with its own equivalent apps. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a $50 Fire and seeing how those work. There have also been reports Cyanogen is working with BLU to launch an Android phone without Google services; it remains to be seen how that will work.

In discussions I’ve had with friends who’ve been fiddling with Android for some time, they note that it is generally very hard to make Android fully useful without recourse to the Google services, because it’s fairly hard to find a very useful third-party replacement for most of these apps on Android. It is theoretically possible to “liberate” your Android device, but in actual practice it ends up being something people do just as an “interesting experiment” because Google’s own services are just too good to throw over. This article talking about it concludes:

This is an interesting experiment for anyone who digs Android, but I can only imagine the most vehemently anti-Google Android fans (is that a thing?) going to the trouble of using Android without Google. Android works fine without Google, it’s just not nearly as good.

So, though the article doesn’t put it quite this clearly, it looks to me as if the FTC may be concerned that Google’s app bundling policy may remove the incentive for anyone to bother creating replacements that work as well, because it’s just too simple for most OEMs to go ahead and license Google’s, and Android is “just not nearly as good” without those services.

This isn’t really a case like the late ‘90s Windows bundling case, where Firefox was effectively just as good as Internet Explorer. Here, there don’t really seem to be as many good substitutes for Google’s services—because almost everyone would use Google’s instead, so why even bother developing them?

The EU investigation seems to focus on whether Google is using access to its services to require companies to play by its rules to get a license. While this has certainly produced positive results, such as restricting how much compatibility-breaking customization OEMs have been able to do, it could also be anti-competitive. It seems that the FTC investigation may have similar aims, though it is too early to know for sure—the FTC and Google have declined to comment, and all we really have are comments from a couple of anonymous sources and a lot of supposition.


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