Some thoughts on the new anti-Google (Android) complaint (Post 1/3)
At Chillin’Competition we have paid considerable attention to a number of IT-related competition developments, and –like most other followers of these matters in Europe and elsewhere- we have shown predilection to comment on the pending EC investigation over Google’s search practices. Nicolas, Pablo Ibañez-Colomo and myself have devoted tenths of posts to offering our –often conflicting- views on a number of issues raised in that case.
We –or at least I- had until now not really paid attention to the more recent FairSearch complaint regarding Android, and this despite the repeated warnings of Enrique Colmenero (our new associate and a geek who knows a bit about Android (he says not sufficiently well, I say it’s unbelievable), who was also the real author of my Google ppt), and who kept on telling me that the allegations in this complaint merited some public discussion. I first looked into it last week while writing the post about Skype’s integration with Windows, and realized that he’s right.
Given that all things Google raise the number of visits to the blog and spur more debate than other topics, we’re decided to comment on this yet non-case. We devoted a weekend to writing our preliminary views, and since the result is fairly lengthy we’ll be breaking the discussion into three separate posts: Today we will provide some background and deal briefly with market definition issues. Tomorrow we’ll discuss the predation claims. And Monday we’ll address the bundling allegations.
Before getting into substance, four disclaimers are necessary. The first is that by myself I wouldn’t have had the required technical knowledge to comment about this, so I’m borrowing Enrique’s (any errors, however, are only mine). The second is that we are not working for any party interested in this case and therefore comment on the basis of publicly available info (for fuller disclosure, some time ago I had two chats with someone on the complainants side as well as with someone working for Google; in both cases they let me know their views on the complaint). The third is that since we don’t want this blog to be a place to discuss cases in a seemingly one-sided way (much less when they are ongoing, like this one), we’ll be happy to open this platform to anyone willing to reason any disagreement with the opinions provided below. We don’t intend to defend a given position, but to reflect on issues that interest the antitrust community, and we are more than open to be persuaded that what we say is wrong. The fourth is that even if now criticize a complaint lodged by Microsoft FairSearch in the past we’ve also heavily critized complaints targeting Microsoft, like this one.
Bored already? If you’re stil reading I guess not, so let’s get started:
Some background to the complaint
Back in April the anti-Google alliance FairSearch (in this case only two of its members Microsoft and Nokia [Note: after I was done writing this post I learnt the news that Microsoft is acquiring Nokia’s mobile business] seem to have a real interest in the case) lodged a complaint with DG Comp alleging: (a) that by giving Android to device-makers for “free” Google engages in predatory conduct (making it difficult for rivals to recoup the investments made in developing competing mobile operating systems; and (b) that “phone makers who want to include must-have Google apps such as Maps, Youtube or Play are required to pre-load an entire suite of Google mobile services, and to give them prominent default placement on the phone”. Click here for FairSearch’s Press Release.
Rumor has it that the Commission recently sent out requests for information in relation to this complaint.
A business problem model?
In our view, this complaint can only be properly understood once one is aware about the existence of essentially 3 different business models for mobile operating systems (OSs). One is Apple’s vertically integrated model (iPhones run on Apple’s own iOS), another is Microsoft’s licensing model (OEM’s wishing to have smartphones running on Windows have to pay for a license), and the third is Android’s free software model (Android is distributed for free under a an open source license which enables licensees to do whatever they wish with the code), which has also been the model adopted by all new market entrants (Ubuntu, Firefox OS, Jolla’s Sailfish or Tizen –backed among others by Samsung and Intel-); Nokia’s Symbian (the market leader until 2011, now maintained by Accenture) was always and is also open source.
Manufacturers that are not vertically integrated at the OS level like Apple or Blackberry had to find a competitive OS, there being, until now, essentially two reliable options: Microsoft’s Windows (which they had to pay for), and Android (which OEMs obtain on a free-license basis; even if they have to pay some royalties….to Microsoft! ; some even say that Microsoft makes more money from Android than from the Windows mobile OS). Not surprisingly, the market tends to favor the open source model and, quite logically, Microsoft doesn’t like that (you’ll recall that it also “had issues” with open source OS for PCs). It’s against this background that the complaint comes, in what some see as an attempt to reverse the course of the business model that is proving most successful.
On market power/dominance as a pre-requisite.
Every press-clip citing FairSearch’s allegations refer to the claim that Android enjoys a market share of 70%. This is a bit equivocal. In reality, the fact appears to be that 70% of smartphones (leaving tablets, led by Apple, aside on the assumption that they belong to a different market) shipped in the last quarter of 2012 had Android. And in reality, usage market shares appear to show a duopoly of iPhones and Android phones (see here or here) rather than an Android monopoly; moreover, revenue-baded market shares clearly tilt the balance in Apple’s favor (as explained here) [As to the future trend: Android is certainly doing spectacularly well lately, but we bet iPhone sales will increase once Apple abandons its (rather Steve Job’s) exclusive-good marketing strategy, which is very profitable (see previous hyperlink) but has costs in terms of market share. Android phones sell very well, among other reasons, because they are often subsidized by operators; iPhones on the other hand have traditionally been quite costly. The moment iPhones are cheaper Apple's share should increase significantly] So, in reality, Android seems to face rather intense competition from Apple’s iOS, Windows, Blackberry; even its main customer (Samsung) has also developed its own OS Bada/Tizen (it also “multi-homes” by licensing Windows for some devices).
Against the background of what would appear to be a competitive smartphone market, the way to come up with a monopoly-like share would require 1) to distinguish separate markets for tablets (where Apple is the leader) and smartphones; and 2) to also take Apple and Blackberry out from the smartphone-only calculation by defining a relevant market for licensable mobile OSs, which intuitively seems a bit of a Procrustean move.
More importantly, forget about market shares for a second. The truly relevant question is: does Android enjoy significant market power? Can it profitably raise prices or decrease output or innovation? Because Android is OpenSource/FreeSoftware (obtainable for free, its source code is entirely disclosed, it can be freely modified/”forked” [see here for “what the fork is forking”?] and appropriated by third parties: just look at Replicant, CyanogenMod, MIUI or at Amazons’ Kindle) we don’t see how Google would be able to exert market power in any way. Even Microsoft and Nokia could take Android and do what they please with it (they could even try to fork/improve it and compete with Google).
Actually, could we even say for sure that there is a “market” for licenseable OSs when all licenses (except Microsoft’s) are FreeSoftware licenses?
Moreover, and as regards innovation, there are very few markets with innovation cycles as fast as the one for smartphones’ OSs having featured a number of leaders in recent years: Palm, Symbian, iPhone, Blackberry and now Android. And this is because given the prevalence of FreeSoftware barriers to entry are extremely low. The moment someone comes up with a more innovative (better) product (including an improved version of Android unrelated to Google), Google would also lose its current lead.
But, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Android is dominant and look at the theories of harm, which bring up some interesting issues In our second post we’ll discuss the predatory pricing claims, and in our third post we’ll deal with the bundling aspects of the case.