Qualcomm reported its results for the June 2017 quarter today, and revenues and profits were both down, in large part because of the various antitrust and other disputes and legal proceedings in which it’s involved. Shortfalls in revenue from Apple, several of its suppliers, and a Chinese customer each caused problems, but it also had to pay out to both BlackBerry and the Korean government over separate disputes. It’s impossible to look at Qualcomm today without noticing the massive cloud of uncertainty and potential financial liability associated with these various cases. On a non-GAAP basis, the company’s results are holding up rather better, though still not stellar. As with Samsung, its semiconductor business was an area of strength, but its core MSM chip sales continue to decline over time as the smartphone market matures, while the broader opportunity it has in CDMA and related technologies continues to grow. Meanwhile, Apple, its suppliers, and Qualcomm all filed new suits over the last couple of days in relation to their dispute, even as Qualcomm’s CEO was quoted earlier this week as saying he expected the case eventually to end in a settlement.
via Financial Times
The News Media Alliance, an industry group representing major newspapers, is beginning a push, launched with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from its president, to get permission from Congress to act collectively in negotiating with Facebook and Google. I’m linking here to a piece in the New York Times on the topic, but it’s from the media columnist and therefore almost as much opinion as reporting, something I’ve found with most of the stories on this, which feels a little ironic. But the thrust of both the op-ed and the opinion side of the New York Times piece is that the news industry is being lorded over by the digital giants, and that single publications or even media groups are powerless to negotiate better relationships without being able to bargain collectively. That, in turn, would be a violation of antitrust rules unless Congress were to pass legislation providing legal cover, something it seems rather unlikely to do, especially in the current political climate. The op-ed is disingenuous to say the least – this is the money quote, in my opinion: “But the two digital giants don’t employ reporters: They don’t dig through public records to uncover corruption, send correspondents into war zones, or attend last night’s game to get the highlights. They expect an economically squeezed news industry to do that costly work for them.” That feels like a distortion of the true relationship here, which is that Google and Facebook both point people to the content those people find interesting, including content from major newspapers. If those newspapers decide to make that content available for free either on their sites or through Instant Articles or AMP, that’s their decision. But that’s not nearly the same as those companies doing that work “for” Google or Facebook. While the idea that the newspapers face an imbalance of power in negotiating individually with Facebook and Google has more merit, it’s also disingenuous to argue that these two companies are somehow singlehandedly responsible for the inequitable distribution of advertising revenue between them, given their respective audience sizes and all else that ails newspapers and their business models. At the same time, it’s worth noting that Facebook is pushing ahead with its plans for subscriptions and other improvements to how it works with publishers, but publications including the New York Times continue to be skeptical of those changes, which makes one wonder just what these papers would kind of relationship with these companies the papers would find acceptable. All of this merely reinforces my sense that the companies don’t really have any solutions to propose, but in fact are angling for some kind of punitive regulatory action against these companies on the basis of their size and influence.
The EU has three open antitrust cases against Google, and has just announced its final decision in one of those cases, which concerns Google Shopping. Very briefly, EU law doesn’t punish dominance in a market per se, but does place limits on certain behavior by dominant companies, specifically those which give their other products and services an unfair advantage. The EU has concluded firstly that Google search is dominant in the EU, and secondly that Google abused that dominance by favoring its Google Shopping feature over other “comparison shopping services”. It has therefore set a €2.4 billion ($2.7bn) fine based on revenue from Google Shopping in 13 countries where it’s available since as long ago as 2008, with a threat to levy an additional 5% of Alphabet’s total revenue going forward if Google doesn’t comply with its directives within 90 days. Other than the fine, the directive says Google has to stop favoring Google Shopping over other comparison shopping services, presumably either by eliminating the Shopping box that appears at the top and merely allowing Google Shopping results to appear with the other blue links below, or by featuring every available comparison shopping service in that box at the top and letting users choose. Predictably, Google has said it feels the decision is wrong and may appeal.
On, then, to what this all means. Firstly, this is just the first in three separate cases, and I’ve previously written in depth about the one that concerns Android here and here. In its decision, the EU explicitly says that this case sets a precedent, which certainly suggests it’s likely to find and act similarly in the other two cases. Secondly, the fine is substantial, but ultimately not the biggest punishment for Google here. Rather, the most significant outcome is restrictions on promoting other Google services in search, which applies for today onto to Shopping but by implication would also affect other linked products that get prominent promotion in search results, whether Maps, News, or potentially other categories too. Put that together with the precedent point, and we’re very likely to see similar restrictions on bundling and promoting other services in Android and possibly other areas too. Thirdly, the decision is notable for a very European approach to defining markets, which I mentioned in one of those earlier pieces on Android: the EU tends to define markets in ways normal people probably wouldn’t, because that allows it to make findings that otherwise couldn’t be made. In this case, it’s defining Google Shopping as a comparison shopping service rather than just a more useful way to present shopping-related search results and/or ads, which is how Google sees them. Once you define Google Shopping in that way, then of course Google is unfairly promoting Google Shopping over other comparison shopping services – can you even name any others? Google’s own algorithm, which benefits only from being as good as possible, rarely ranks any others above the fourth page of organic search results, suggesting their limited relevance. But as long as the EU is determined to take that approach, I see very little Google can do to fight against this decision, because it’s based on a market definition the EU gets to decide on, and which Google is essentially powerless to change. Overall, this feels like something of a watershed moment in Google’s relationship with the EU – I think any appeal is very unlikely to succeed, and at most will push back the implementation of the decision and the forced unbending of Shopping from search. But there’s lots more to come here, and Google is going to end up operating very differently in the EU from the rest of the world as a result. See a recent case in Russia for a small sense of some of the possible implications of the Android case.
One quick note: I’ve used the term “EU” throughout for simplicity’s sake, but it’s worth noting that technically it’s a specific part of the EU organization, the European Commission, which is taking this action.
★ European Firms Including Spotify Sign Letter to EU Asking for Action Against “Gatekeepers” (May 5, 2017)
Google Forced to Unbundle Services from Android and Open to Search Competitors in Russia (Apr 17, 2017)
The EU is currently taking action against Google over what it sees as anticompetitive practices including bundling of its own services and blocking competing ones from being pre-installed in Android. As such, this Russian case takes on more importance than it might otherwise have, because it presents one possible outcome of the EU case, which is forcing Google to unbundle its own services from Android and allow competing search engines like Yandex to be pre-installed. That’s certainly a possibility in the EU case too, and would mirror the action taken years ago against Microsoft over browsers in Windows. If that were to happen, I’m skeptical many people (or OEMs) would choose alternative search engines on an Android phone, but it would potentially threaten Google’s Android business model, which is entirely about the apps and services it runs on the device (and the advertising they enable). For what it’s worth, as I wrote in this piece at the time the EU action was announced, I still think it’s misguided.