It is not the first time we see Google and “anti-competitive” in the same sentence. There have been numerous penalties against Google for abusing its monopoly, especially in the smartphone app distribution marketplace. But the latest penalty of ₹1337.76 crores levied on Google by the Competition Commission of India not only hurts the tech giant financially but also accompanies a landmark judgment in favour of alternative app stores such as the Indus App Bazaar.
In a cease and desist notice issued against Google, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) recognised how the availability of the Google Play Store impacts OEMs, app developers, and consumers. Because the Google Play Store is positioned as the predominant destination for downloading apps on Android devices, it gives Google an unfair advantage against other brands serving a similar solution.
How Google misuses its dominance
The CCI noted the following ways in which Google violates anti-competitive regulations in India:
Google signs Mobile Application Distribution Agreement (MADA) with device manufacturers while licencing the commercial version of Android. CCI found that Google misuses its dominant position in the app market to retain authority as the leading web search provider, particularly on mobile devices.
MADA ensures all the entry points to a web experience — i.e., web search widgets, web browser, app search — are owned and guarded by Google. This gives Google an unfair advantage over any other service provider vying to offer a similar web search experience. These entry points further allow Google to earn revenue by selling ad space for relevant traffic.
By exacting partner OEMs to pre-install its apps on their Android devices, Google has maintained its dominance in go-to for web experiences. Google Chrome comes pre-installed on all Android phones and, in most cases, is also the default web browser. Likewise, YouTube is pre-installed on all Android phones and has been accepted as the default means to play videos on the web.
CCI says the unconditional installation of Google apps like Chrome and YouTube on Android phones has made the services even more ubiquitous, which is something no other service has ever been able to replicate. This gives Google, the owner and licensor of Android, an unfair lead over every other service provider in their respective spaces.
Lastly, and most importantly, CCI takes note of how the Google Play Store’s monopoly hurts alternative app stores such as the Indus App Bazaar. By forcing OEMs to install the Google Play Store on their devices as one of the conditions for accessing the commercial version of Android, Google has hindered other manufacturers from creating their own (especially de-Googled) versions of Android.
As per the watchdog, Google’s tight control in the app distribution space has prevented other manufacturers from creating forks of Android that are outside of its grip. This has severely impacted competitors, such as Huawei, which was stripped of its rights to use Google Play Services on its Android devices as a result of the sanctions placed on it in the US. CCI says the lack of a veritable competitor to the Google Play Store has restricted the growth of manufacturers like Huawei. Despite the presence of Huawei’s own App Gallery with a substantial number of apps, the Google Play Store’s absence has driven its sales into the ground.
Besides taking note of these challenges, CCI advises measures to resolve Google’s dominance as the ultimate provider of apps and online services.
Challenging Google’s supremacy
Benefits for OEMs
Taking these violations into account, the Indian regulator noted in its ruling that Google cannot force manufacturers to include its bouquet of apps. It cannot limit access to Play Services API or financially incentivize companies to include a certain set of apps as part of licencing Android.
This ensures that OEMs must be free to include or exclude any Google app on their smartphones as they deem fit. The judgment doesn’t bar manufacturers from including their own app stores, either alongside or as an alternative to the Google Play Store, on their devices.
Benefits for users
The Commission also says that Google cannot prevent users from uninstalling the pre-installed Google apps if they desire to do so. Additionally, Google must allow users to choose their desired default search engine while setting up their Android smartphones.
In addition, the judgment also gives users the opportunity to choose an app distribution platform of their own choice.
How the judgment impacts alternative app stores
The CCI, in its judgment, also combatted the most pivotal part of Google’s dominance. It instructed the tech giant to allow alternative app stores to distribute their app stores through the Google Play Store. That means that if a user is looking to install an alternative app store on their Android smartphone, they must no longer have to sideload it externally using an APK file.
This judgment can prove to be a major turning point for app stores such as the Indus App Bazaar, which offers a more tailor-made and localized approach for Indian consumers. This, of course, relies on how open smartphone brands are in consciously communicating the availability of alternatives beyond Google’s own apps and services. The judgment also stands to see the test of time and whether action against Google entails the same action in India as it has been forced in Europe following the landmark $5 billion antitrust fine by the European Union.