Google faces new competition complaint in Europe, this time over Android app stores

Google Play tablet view

Google is abusing its dominance in the Android app distribution market to shut out rivals, the independent app store provider Aptoide has argued in an antitrust complaint to the European Commission.

According to Portugal’s Aptoide, which claims to be the largest independent Android app store with 200,000 titles and 6 million active users, Google has made it difficult or impossible in multiple ways for Android users to choose alternative app stores. CEO Paulo Trezentos told me the company had a meeting with European Commission representatives last week in preparation for the complaint’s submission, but those representatives didn’t give Aptoide any feedback at the time, in line with protocol.

Aptoide has 4 complaints:

  • Blocking: A non-compete clause in the Play Store terms and conditions means no fully-functional third-party app store can be found in the Play Store. The app stores that are in there are therefore “nothing more than catalogs” that then steer users to the Play Store mechanisms for downloading the apps they want, Trezentos said. Therefore, Aptoide can only be downloaded to a phone via the service’s mobile web page. Except…
  • Installation obstacles: The firm claims Google has made it progressively more difficult to install apps from third-party sources. According to Trezentos, Aptoide’s focus groups showed that, in Android 2.1, 80 percent of users could easily find the setting that allows third-party app installation. But that option kept becoming harder to find on the relevant settings page, and after Android 4.0 “only 20 percent” of users could figure out how to find it.
  • Bundling: Google Mobile Services (GMS), the suite that Google-ifies an Android phone, is strongly coupled with the Play Store. So, for example, an Android-based Amazon Kindle device uses Amazon’s own store and also doesn’t come with Google’s services, while a standard Android phone will come with Google Maps and so on, and must therefore also include the Play Store.
  • Other Google services: Aptoide claims that Google’s Chrome browser blocked the page for the Aptoide installer on the premise that it was infested with malware. The firm’s attempts to show Google its clean bill of health over the last 4 weeks have allegedly elicited no response. What’s more, Aptoide says Google is making the inclusion of the Play Store mandatory in its search agreements with carriers. “They pay telecoms to ship phones with their search and now they start to bundle search and Play,” Trezentos told me.
The anti-phishing notice Aptoide's users apparently saw when trying to access the installer via Chrome

The anti-phishing notice Aptoide’s users apparently saw when trying to access the installer via Chrome

According to Aptoide, the fact that the Play Store isn’t available in China shows how competitive the app store market can be in its absence – in that country, there are hundreds of viable Android app stores vying for users’ attention. Of course, she who runs the app store gets to play gatekeeper and take a cut of revenues, and this space is going to be absolutely crucial to watch in the coming years (this is where Facebook is muscling past Google on Android phones in developing markets, for instance.)

Piling on

Can this case go anywhere? It is certainly true that Android has a dominant smartphone market share in Europe — 72.4 percent, according to recent figures from Kantar, so we may be in antitrust territory here. The question then is whether this makes Google’s conditions and actions a competition issue for the European mobile market as a whole, or merely for the sizeable market that is Android itself.

At the time of writing, the office of competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia has said nothing beyond confirming receipt of the complaint, which isn’t surprising as that only happened on Monday. However, it’s worth noting that the “FairSearch” organization, backed by the likes of Microsoft and Oracle, has already complained to Almunia about Google’s bundling of its services with Android. There is at least some crossover between the FairSearch and Aptoide complaints (and with a separate bundling lawsuit in the U.S.

And then there’s the bigger European Google antitrust case, which Almunia is desperate to wrap up as he’s about to reach the end of his term. There’s still a large amount of pushback from other commissioners on that one – many players see Almunia as being too amenable to the American company – and the outcome there is not nearly as certain as Almunia has hoped.

About the only thing that can be said for sure at this point is that Google has a whole lot of power in the European market, and a whole lot of rivals and regulators trying to make sure competition is still possible. Whether or not the Aptoide case gets anywhere, there will be more like it.

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