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The gist of these arguments is simple. The Amazon / Whole Foods merger would lead to the exclusion of competitors, with Amazon leveraging its swaths of data and pricing below costs. All of this begs a simple question: have these prophecies come to pass?

The problem with antitrust populism is not just that it leads to unfounded predictions regarding the negative effects of a given business practice. It also ignores the significant gains which consumers may reap from these practices. The Amazon / Whole foods offers a case in point.

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Our story begins on the morning of January 9, 2007. Few people knew it at the time, but the world of wireless communications was about to change forever. Steve Jobs walked on stage wearing his usual turtleneck, and proceeded to reveal the iPhone. The rest, as they say, is history. The iPhone moved the wireless communications industry towards a new paradigm. No more physical keyboards, clamshell bodies, and protruding antennae. All of these were replaced by a beautiful black design, a huge touchscreen (3.5” was big for that time), a rear-facing camera, and (a little bit later) a revolutionary new way to consume applications: the App Store. Sales soared and Apple’s stock started an upward trajectory that would see it become one of the world’s most valuable companies.

The story could very well have ended there. If it had, we might all be using iPhones today. However, years before, Google had commenced its own march into the wireless communications space by purchasing a small startup called Android. A first phone had initially been slated for release in late 2007. But Apple’s iPhone announcement sent Google back to the drawing board. It took Google and its partners until 2010 to come up with a competitive answer – the Google Nexus One produced by HTC.

Understanding the strategy that Google put in place during this three year timespan is essential to understanding the European Commission’s Google Android decision.

How to beat one of the great innovations?

In order to overthrow — or even merely just compete with — the iPhone, Google faced the same dilemma that most second-movers have to contend with: imitate or differentiate. Its solution was a mix of both. It took the touchscreen, camera, and applications, but departed on one key aspect. Whereas Apple controls the iPhone from end-to-end, Google opted for a licensed, open-source operating system that substitutes a more-decentralized approach for Apple’s so-called “walled garden.”

Google and a number of partners founded the Open Handset Alliance (“OHA”) in November 2007. This loose association of network operators, software companies and handset manufacturers became the driving force behind the Android OS. Through the OHA, Google and its partners have worked to develop minimal specifications for OHA-compliant Android devices in order to ensure that all levels of the device ecosystem — from device makers to app developers — function well together. As its initial press release boasts, through the OHA:

Handset manufacturers and wireless operators will be free to customize Android in order to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost. Developers will have complete access to handset capabilities and tools that will enable them to build more compelling and user-friendly services, bringing the Internet developer model to the mobile space. And consumers worldwide will have access to less expensive mobile devices that feature more compelling services, rich Internet applications and easier-to-use interfaces — ultimately creating a superior mobile experience.

The open source route has a number of advantages — notably the improved division of labor — but it is not without challenges. One key difficulty lies in coordinating and incentivizing the dozens of firms that make up the alliance. Google must not only keep the diverse Android ecosystem directed toward a common, compatible goal, it also has to monetize a product that, by its very nature, is given away free of charge. It is Google’s answers to these two problems that set off the Commission’s investigation.

The first problem is a direct consequence of Android’s decentralization. Whereas there are only a small number of iPhones (the couple of models which Apple markets at any given time) running the same operating system, Android comes in a jaw-dropping array of flavors. Some devices are produced by Google itself, others are the fruit of high-end manufacturers such as Samsung and LG, there are also so-called “flagship killers” like OnePlus, and budget phones from the likes of Motorola and Honor (one of Huawei’s brands). The differences don’t stop there. Manufacturers, like Samsung, Xiaomi and LG (to name but a few) have tinkered with the basic Android setup. Samsung phones heavily incorporate its Bixby virtual assistant, while Xiaomi packs in a novel user interface. The upshot is that the Android marketplace is tremendously diverse.

Managing this variety is challenging, to say the least (preventing projects from unravelling into a myriad of forks is always an issue for open source projects). Google and the OHA have come up with an elegant solution. The alliance penalizes so-called “incompatible” devices — that is, handsets whose software or hardware stray too far from a predetermined series of specifications. When this is the case, Google may refuse to license its proprietary applications (most notably the Play Store). This minimum level of uniformity ensures that apps will run smoothly on all devices. It also provides users with a consistent experience (thereby protecting the Android brand) and reduces the cost of developing applications for Android. Unsurprisingly, Android developers have lauded these “anti-fragmentation” measures, branding the Commission’s case a disaster.

A second important problem stems from the fact that the Android OS is an open source project. Device manufacturers can thus license the software free of charge. This is no small advantage. It shaves precious dollars from the price of Android smartphones, thus opening-up the budget end of the market. Although there are numerous factors at play, it should be noted that a top of the range Samsung Galaxy S9+ is roughly 30% cheaper ($819) than its Apple counterpart, the iPhone X ($1165).

Offering a competitive operating system free of charge might provide a fantastic deal for consumers, but it poses obvious business challenges. How can Google and other members of the OHA earn a return on the significant amounts of money poured into developing, improving, and marketing and Android devices? As is often the case with open source projects, they essentially rely on complementarities. Google produces the Android OS in the hope that it will boost users’ consumption of its profitable, ad-supported services (Google Search in particular). This is sometimes referred to as a loss leader or complementary goods strategy.

Google uses two important sets of contractual provisions to cement this loss leader strategy. First, it seemingly bundles a number of proprietary applications together. Manufacturers must pre-load the Google Search and Chrome apps in order to obtain the Play Store app (the lynchpin on which the Android ecosystem sits). Second, Google has concluded a number of “revenue sharing” deals with manufacturers and network operators. These companies receive monetary compensation when the Google Search is displayed prominently on a user’s home screen. In effect, they are receiving a cut of the marginal revenue that the use of this search bar generates for Google. Both of these measures ultimately nudge users — but do not force them, as neither prevents users from installing competing apps — into using Google’s most profitable services.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking that this is a win-win situation. Users get a competitive product free of charge, while Google and other members of the OHA earn enough money to compete against Apple.

The Commission is of another mind, however.

Commission’s hubris

The European Commission believes that Google is hurting competition. Though the text of the decision is not yet available, the thrust of its argument is that Google’s anti-fragmentation measures prevent software developers from launching competing OSs, while the bundling and revenue sharing both thwart rival search engines.

This analysis runs counter to some rather obvious facts:

  • For a start, the Android ecosystem is vibrant. Numerous firms have launched forked versions of Android, both with and without Google’s apps. Amazon’s Fire line of devices is a notable example.
  • Second, although Google’s behavior does have an effect on the search engine market, there is nothing anticompetitive about it. Yahoo could very well have avoided its high-profile failure if, way back in 2005, it had understood the importance of the mobile internet. At the time, it still had a 30% market share, compared to Google’s 36%. Firms that fail to seize upon business opportunities will fall out of the market. This is not a bug; it is possibly the most important feature of market economies. It reveals the products that consumers prefer and stops resources from being allocated to less valuable propositions.
  • Last but not least, Google’s behavior does not prevent other search engines from placing their own search bars or virtual assistants on smartphones. This is essentially what Samsung has done by ditching Google’s assistant in favor of its Bixby service. In other words, Google is merely competing with other firms to place key apps on or near the home screen of devices.

Even if the Commission’s reasoning where somehow correct, the competition watchdog is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The potential repercussions for Android, the software industry, and European competition law are great:

  • For a start, the Commission risks significantly weakening Android’s competitive position relative to Apple. Android is a complex ecosystem. The idea that it is possible to bring incremental changes to its strategy without threatening the viability of the whole is a sign of the Commission’s hubris.
  • More broadly, the harsh treatment of Google could have significant incentive effects for other tech platforms. As others have already pointed out, the Commission’s decision rests on the idea that dominant firms should not be allowed to favor their own services compared to those of rivals. Taken a face value, this anti-discrimination policy will push firms to design closed platforms. If rivals are excluded from the very start, there is no one against whom to discriminate. Antitrust watchdogs are thus kept at bay (and thus the Commission is acting against Google’s marginal preference for its own services, rather than Apple’s far-more-substantial preferencing of its own services). Moving to a world of only walled gardens might harm users and innovators alike.

Over the next couple of days and weeks, many will jump to the Commission’s defense. They will see its action as a necessary step against the abstract “power” of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. Rivals will feel vindicated. But when all is done and dusted, there seems to be little doubt that the decision is misguided. The Commission will have struck a blow to the heart of the most competitive offering in the smartphone space. And consumers will be the biggest losers.

This is not what the competition laws were intended to achieve.