Google is once again under the spotlight for anticompetitive practices by the U.S. Department Of Justice, this time relating to Google Maps and its forced bundling with other Google services in cars that incorporate the tech giant’s Android Automotive platform, such as those from Volvo and Polestar. Carmakers are forbidden from replacing Google Maps with a rival navigation service, like Apple Maps or even Waze, which happens to be owned by Google.
The Justice Department’s probe was originally lodged in late 2020 but hasn’t received much attention from legislators until recently, Reuters reported Wednesday. And although the software shipped in cars certainly comprises a great deal of the government’s ire, the repercussions will likely reach far beyond the auto industry. From the article:
Specifically, the department is looking at Google’s requirement that if a website or app uses one Google technology, say Google’s location search, the website or app developer cannot use maps or other technologies developed by Google’s rivals, the two sources said.
Basically, anyone who wants to incorporate Google Maps — be it General Motors or an independent developer — must use the Google Assistant, Google Search, Google Calendar and Mountain View’s range of other services, too. It’s everything or nothing. Google’s official position is that it enforces the package deal to ensure a smooth user experience, and that partners can add another navigation service in addition to Maps, should they desire one.
There’s a long history of Google’s practices here and the government’s desire to root them out, going back to United States v. Microsoft Corp. (the 1998 version, not the more recent edition). The subject of that lawsuit was Microsoft’s decision to preinstall Internet Explorer on Windows. Microsoft argued it did this out of care for the user experience, not unlike Google has today. Lawmakers, on the other hand, identified it as a strategic move to suffocate distribution of a promising competing internet browser: Netscape. You don’t hear much of Netscape anymore, do you?
“Because of antitrust enforcement, that’s why we have Google,” Gary Ryback, who represented Netscape during that period, told The Ringer in a 2018 article that you should definitely check out if you have any interest in the legal precedent at play here.
Ironically, now Google finds itself in the very same position — a position it already knows well. Back in 2019, the European Union mandated that Google ask its users in the region to choose their default search engine when firing up an Android phone for the very first time. This is an issue that has come up, and will continue to come up, as long as software and the companies that distribute it exist.
Now you might wonder what other mapping services there are aside from Google’s and Apple’s that you’d ever want to use. That’s a fair criticism; it’s also precisely the reason antitrust laws like this exist. Google Maps became the leader in this space through continued development ensured by a perpetually thriving captive user base of Android (and, at one time iPhone) owners. That’s why you don’t hear about, say MapQuest, much any more. Or Here. Or Bing Maps, though — to be fair — that’s also due to the fact that Bing sucks.
And sure, some carmakers might deeply value Google’s wealth of connected services. But you can bet they’d all rather use an alternative they have more control over — especially if it means reaping more of that sweet location data within — even if the user experience suffered as a result.
That’s not to say Google doesn’t have a valid point when it says, per Reuters’ article, “that mixing a Google Map with information on another map could lead to errors.” Google builds its software to work with the rest of its software — not Amazon’s, not Apple’s. Should this case continue, it’ll be another protracted, public demonstration of how little legislators understand about tech. All this software isn’t plug-and-play, even if it should be.
That’s where we stand now, and it’ll be interesting to see if Google ends up obliged to tweak Android Automotive as a result. Cars are connected devices today, like it or not. Any development in the tech world is going to send ripples throughout every other, including ours.