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Is Google a Monopolist?

So this week the Google monopoly hearings began, and right off the bat we see Eric Schmidt claiming Google isn’t Microsoft and this isn’t the 1990s. All well and good, but that may not matter. And while I am not a lawyer, I lived through the Microsoft trials and even got to watch part of a day’s testimony in the back of the courtroom. Back then, Microsoft claimed that its behavior was good for consumers by having its IM, media player and Web browser bundled into Windows; a note that Schmidt similarly struck at his testimony yesterday. But today’s Google is under very different circumstances than Microsoft. Let’s look at things from the technical side:

What is the marketplace that Google is supposedly monopolizing? Is it the search universe? The desktop browser? The mobile phone OS? The Internet? The HTTP protocol? With Microsoft, it was more clear-cut: they owned the desktop, they tied the desktop browser and Web browser together, and they owned a set of closed and largely undocumented APIs. None of that can be said for Google.

Does Google have an unfair advantage? The hearings were a poor place to try to get technical information across, to be sure. The senators trying to understand SEO rankings and getting confused on the differences between rankings and Google services were also sad to see. It was almost as if Al Franken was auditioning a new version of his Stuart Smalley SNL character (pictured above).

Is Google tying one product or service with another? Depending on your point of view, either everything Google does is tied together, or very little. The impending acquisition of Motorola’s Mobility group could offer up an opportunity to tie together phones to particular Google services and protocols, but that isn’t clear. Microsoft clearly tied together Windows with various pieces of its OS and software (IE, Media Player, and MSN Messenger). These were eventually untied in later versions so that consumers and OEMs could select the tools that they wished to use. Since then, IE’s market share has decreased.

The Microsoft case was successful in creating a more open environment. The Technical Committee, the three-man group that the Justice Department created as a result of the legal ruling, operated for nearly a decade and succeeded at publishing APIs and tools to examine the Windows registry (that link goes to the Internet Archive because the TC’s Web site has been taken down). Certainly Google could be better at documenting its protocols and services, and perhaps these hearings will motivate them to be more open. One small movement in this direction is better documentation for the APIs for Google+, as we reported earlier this week.

FOR MORE:“Eric Schmidt Reigns Invincible While Congress Tilts at Windmills” by Scott M. Fulton, III

The question of whether Google is acting as a monopolist wasn’t really answered in yesterday’s hearings, and our Senators showed a spectacular lack of understanding of what a 21st century monopolist in the Internet era really is. One thing is clear: they showed that they weren’t good enough, smart enough and likable like Franken’s SNL character.

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