The European commission is asking Google’s partners for details about these partnerships, including any requirement that they preload Google’s apps and services on their devices, according to Reuters.
Its report suggests that the commission, which is due to appoint a new antitrust chief later in 2014, is keen to explore whether Google is abusing Android’s large market share to promote its own services.
It would be the second major investigation by the EU into Google’s business practices, with the first – focused on whether the company gives undue prominence to its own services in its search engine results – yet to conclude.
Google has been locked in negotiations with current antitrust commissioner Joaquin Almunia for years over legally-binding concessions that would help it avoid a full court case, after the EC launched its investigation in 2010 in response to complaints from rivals including Microsoft.
Its offer to give more prominence to links to competing services has been fiercely criticised by those rivals, with a final decision on whether to settle now expected in September. A second investigation focused on Android could launch as the first is closed, suggested one of Reuters’ sources.
Android is the dominant smartphone platform, with research firm Strategy Analytics estimating that it was installed on 85% of new smartphones that shipped worldwide in the second quarter of 2014, compared to 12% for Apple’s iOS and 2.7% for Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
Android’s market share of smartphones actually in use is the subject of more debate. Google recently announced that there are 1 billion monthly active Android users, up from 538m in mid-2013.
The industry analyst Benedict Evans has used those figures to calculate that the average Android device has a shorter lifespan than one running iOS, so Android’s “true” market share of devices in use is likely to be lower than its share of new shipments – this Guardian article explores that debate in more depth.
In any case, an Android investigation by the European Commission would be a new headache for Google in one of its key markets. Almunia has already signified his willingness to investigate Google beyond search, in a letter sent to colleagues in June, and subsequently leaked to the New York Times.
The letter cited “many allegations, the various practices that they cover, and the new types of markets that are affected” and described Android as “the most advanced investigation” beyond search.
“The allegations relate to practices that may prevent the development of alternative operating systems to Android,” explained Almunia, who also mentioned “restrictive conditions in agreements”.
Google has hit back at suggestions that its Android partnerships flout antitrust laws. “Anyone can use Android without Google, and anyone can use Google without Android,” a spokesperson told Reuters.
“Since Android’s introduction, greater competition in the smartphone market has given consumers more and better choices. Both the US FTC and Korean Fair Trade Commission have examined Google’s agreements around Android in depth and concluded that there was no cause for legal concern.”
Google is also facing an official complaint to the European commission from independent music label bodies Win and Impala, over its approach to licensing music from their members for YouTube’s upcoming paid subscription service.
This year, the company was also ordered by the European Union’s court of justice to delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its search results when requested to by a member of the public.
The so-called “right to be forgotten” ruling has since sparked controversy and debate, with Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt publicly criticising it, and a report by a committee of the UK’s House of Lords describing it as “unworkable, unreasonable, and wrong in principle”.
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