Google will keep dominating mobile in Europe, and the latest antitrust ruling won't make a dent

  • Earlier this week, Google announced changes to how it bundles its apps, in response to the EU's July antitrust ruling.
  • But because of the agreements that the company reportedly offers device makers, they will likely continue to license Chrome and Search alongside Google's other apps.
  • And just like that, the status quo barely changes.
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Developers Conference in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Developers Conference in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.

Last week, Google complied with the European Commission's $5 billion antitrust ruling by changing how it bundles its apps, and allowing phone manufacturers to make devices with modified — or "forked" — versions of Android alongside phones with Google's version.

But as details leak out about how exactly these changes will be structured, it's hard to imagine that they'll make a dent in Google's mobile dominance in the EU.

From the beginning, Google has denied stifling competition and is still appealing the EU's decision, though these changes prevent it from having to pay additional fines in the meantime (it had 90 days to change its conduct before facing charges of up to 5 percent of Alphabet's average daily worldwide revenue).

Still, Android, which Google gives away for free, has 74 percent market share in Europe, according to StatCounter. In July, EU antitrust regulators ruled that Google was using this dominance to push consumers towards its own search engine and other services —where it makes money — and weakening rival app makers in the process.

It ordered Google to unbundle its Chrome browser and search app from its Play Store, which consumers use to download other apps.

On Tuesday, Google announced its plan to satisfy regulators: It will now have separate licenses for Chrome and the search app. It will also have a separate license for its suite of other apps, including the Play store, Gmail, YouTube, Maps, and more. Phone makers can now license and pre-install that app suite without also licensing and pre-installing Chrome or Search.

However, Google says that including Search and Chrome with its other apps funded its development of Android, so to offset the lost revenue, it's introducing a new licensing fee. A device maker that wants to install the Play Store (and the rest of the app suite) on any phones sold in the European Economic Area will have to pay up.

Although Google declined to share pricing information, The Verge reported on Friday that the fee for the Play Store bundle will be as high as $40 per device for high-end devices, based on confidential "fee schedule" documents. Google declined to comment.

If true, that's a pretty high cost, particularly if you believe that phone makers would pass that mark-up along to consumers.

However, an unnamed source told The Verge that Google will also offer device-makers separate agreements to cover some or all of the Google suite licensing costs —but only if the phone maker chooses to pre-install Chrome and Search as well.

So, if a phone maker decides that it needs the Play Store and can lower its fees by also pre-installing Chrome and Search, well…let's just say the math favors keeping Chrome and Search around.

And so the status quo will likely remain largely the same: Android phones that come with the Play Store will also include Chrome and Search.

Yes, some phone makers could abandon the Play Store and go with a different Android app store. But other stores don't have as many apps, including Google apps, although many can be "sideloaded," or manually installed. Savvy users could even install the Play Store themselves, though there can be security risks.

The EU ruling also means that now phone makers can experiment with different devices that run different versions of Android. For example, phone makers could sell products running Amazon's FireOS (based on the basic version of Android) or their own forks of Android, as well as phones with Google's version of Android.

But these are corner cases. In all, the changes are likely too little too late to shake up the dominance of Google's services in Europe.