On Tuesday, we reported on a new complaint filed by "Fairsearch," an anti-Google group that counts Microsoft, Oracle, Nokia, and about a dozen other Google competitors as members. In recent years, European regulators have become more aggressive at policing anticompetitive behavior in the tech sector than their American counterparts. Microsoft and its allies hope that officials will conclude that Google's mobile OS strategy violates the EU's competition laws.
"Android phone makers who want to include must-have Google apps such as Maps, YouTube or Play are required to pre-load an entire suite of Google mobile services and to give them prominent default placement on the phone," Fairsearch argued in a blog post announcing the complaint. Here, the group is echoing charges Microsoft itself faced more than a decade ago after it bundled Internet Explorer with Windows.
But Fairsearch also makes an additional argument that should alarm anyone who benefits from free software—which is to say everyone who uses the Internet. Google's competitors complain about the search giant's "predatory distribution of Android at below cost." Apparently, Fairsearch believes that it's "predatory" for a company to gain market share by giving its software away for free.
That stance would have sweeping implications for the software industry because so many software companies distribute software for free. Red Hat gives away its version of Linux (in source code form, at least) as a way to generate interest in its subscriptions and support services. Other popular software packages, such as the Eclipse development environment and the OpenOffice productivity suite, have been maintained at times by commercial sponsors.
Indeed, Oracle itself is a major distributor of free software. Since it acquired Sun in 2010, Oracle has been the primary sponsor of two important open source projects, Java and MySQL. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison probably wouldn't have approved the decision to make Java open source if he'd been running Sun in 2006. But the fact remains that one of Oracle's subsidiaries is distributing a popular software program "at below cost." Presumably, Oracle wouldn't want this practice declared anticompetitive by European bureaucrats.
Such a ruling would be more beneficial to Microsoft. The Redmond giant doesn't give away much software itself and many of its proprietary products face open source competitors. So Microsoft might be better off in a world where giving away software was regarded as anticompetive.
But accepting Microsoft's position would be detrimental to almost everyone else. Giving away software for free is a longstanding industry practice with broad consumer benefits. Obviously, free software saves consumers money, but it has other benefits as well. Free software lowers barriers to entry. The Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, for example, might not exist today if Amazon and Barnes and Noble, respectively, weren't able to start with Android as a base. Oracle has even offered its own version of Red Hat's Linux distribution.
Competition laws are supposed to benefit consumers, not a company's competitors. It's easy to see how Microsoft and Nokia might have been harmed by Google's decision to price its mobile operating system at zero. But there's no reason to think the strategy is harmful to consumers. To the contrary, consumers benefit greatly from the low price and broad selection of Android handsets. And despite those low prices, Android faces competition from mobile operating systems made by Apple, Microsoft, Research in Motion, Mozilla, and others.