Gigaom‘s Jeff John Roberts appears to have been the first to report on a class action lawsuit claiming Google uses “secret deals” that force manufacturers to make its search engine the default choice on most Android smartphones and tablets. The tactic has helped Google become the dominant mobile search provider, according to the suit, but harms consumers by increasing device prices. And that violates the Sherman Act and other antitrust laws, according to the lawyer bringing the suit and who seeks unspecified damages on behalf of every Android owner in the U.S.
There’s no question Google is clamping down on its manufacturer partners in an effort to retake control of Android, as I’ve discussed at length over the last few months. I think the claimant will have a very hard time making their case, however: The heart of Android remains open source and is available to any manufacturer to use as they like; the default search requirement applies only to OEMs who want to package apps such as Google Play and YouTube on their handsets. Google’s strategy has made Android difficult for most OEMs to fork, but players like Microsoft’s Nokia are able to produce devices that run their own services atop Android.
If the lawsuit succeeds even partly, though, it could pave the way for manufacturers who want to cherry-pick which Google apps they want to use on their handsets, and which they want to eschew in favor of their own (or third-party) software and services. That would likely increase Android fragmentation in a big way as Samsung and others step up efforts to co-opt Android as a vehicle for their own offerings. And that would be awful for Google, which is finally beginning to regain control of the world’s dominant mobile operating system it developed.