The Google Competition Quandary

The heat mounts on Google and AT&T. But for technology users, competition is often a better equalizer than a courtroom.
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Today, as Google gears up to face a senate judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, more states line up against AT&T's purchase of T-Mobile. Samsung and Apple threaten to take their patent battle to the Korean courts. Oracle ponders whether to roll the dice by going to trial again with SAP. And that's just for starters.

Every complaint holds hard-to-deny truth, and almost every company either driving the litigation bus or being run over by it is doing well. It's fun to watch crisply-pressed CEOs, fresh off the corporate jet, face the repressed anger of donor-weary senators. But competition is always a better equalizer than a courtroom.

The trouble always lies in determining when customers (end users, shareholders) benefit from these courtroom dramas.

It is no grand secret that Google makes its money from search, and that nearly everything it does, from video to mobile to mobile payments, is really about forming tighter end-user customer relationships. Google wants to know those constituents so well that its search advertising business customers can practically hand-pick targets, manipulating the likelihood of success.

As InformationWeek's Tom Claburn points out in his exquisite piece on the 9 markets Google wants to rule, Google aims to tell you where to eat (now that it owns Zagat), where to shop (Places), and how to find your way there (Maps). Then it helps you spend your money (Google Wallet went live Monday,) while also trying to help you save it (Offers).

[What's Google's master plan? See 9 Markets Google Wants To Rule.]

Everyone benefits: end users are better served by tightly integrated Google services, business customers are more efficient, and Google shareholders see growth and market value. At least until the arrogance of certain Google executives leads to creepy statements about how well it knows its end-user customer.

The Department of Justice, along with the FTC, the European courts, and several U.S. states have put Google on notice that concern is mounting about how far Google will leverage its search hegemony. That's fine, but don't forget that there are other companies forging closer ties with consumers--Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, for example. Don't forget Facebook and LinkedIn.

The competition is delicious. Amazon and Apple have loyal customer relationships (and thus customer information) around music, books, cloud, and other consumer services. LinkedIn's successful public offering raised a few eyebrows; now a company called Identified is launching a LinkedIn competitor as a Facebook service (and Google's Eric Schmidt is one of its financial backers.)

In other words, Google's stronghold isn't the only way to know customers.

Google's sudden mobile dominance is being challenged in the courts by Oracle, Apple (through its various lawsuits targeting Android device makers,) and, to some extent, Microsoft. Meanwhile, Google's mobile dominance has yet to translate into tablet inroads.

Don't look now, but Microsoft hit reboot on mobile, ignored detractors, and is suddenly climbing back into the race with Windows Phone 7. It's busy parlaying the good ideas on that user experience into new thinking for tablets and personal computers (Windows 8,) with a surprising amount of fanfare and anticipation. It is only a matter of time before the company figures out how to imbue Kinect-style user interaction into every personal computing experience--and play its ultimate trump card.

Happy to let everyone else pistol-whip each other in court, buy one another for the sole purpose of patent-assured deterrence, and distract themselves with pride, Microsoft--the perennially court-ordered! the ultimate fine payer!--finds itself the underdog.

Not too far away, AT&T--acquirer of T-Mobile, dropper of calls--has drawn considerable heat from Sprint, the DOJ and, so far, seven states, including, most recently, Pennsylvania. AT&T's advertising promises that its merger will create U.S. jobs. But people seem willing to make the sacrifice--a Light Reading poll shows an abundance of the site's readers oppose the AT&T-T-Mobile deal.

Meanwhile, AT&T, without the help of T-Mobile, ramped up LTE coverage in five cities this past weekend, according to Light Reading. That puts it on the road to true 4G, which has been mainly the bailiwick of Sprint (WiMax) and Verizon (LTE) so far this year. Verizon's LTE already covers about half of the urban U.S. market. In fact, Verizon is "encouraging" (by which I mean "punishing") its customers to move to 4G by throttling its most abusive 3G customers--those whose usage falls in the top five percent and who live in congested cell sites.

The government needs to look closely at the AT&T-T-Mobile deal, and that deal may fail scrutiny--yet the other carriers seem quite capable of both meeting customer needs and simultaneously bashing those same customers in the face.

The courts may have a role to play in protecting consumers. But sometimes the arrogance that can come with unmitigated success is enough to fuel a competitive landscape capable of protecting itself.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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