This guy knows the game

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Don't Be Afraid of the Big, Bad Google

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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Remember when everyone used to be scared of Microsoft and the hammerlock it seemed to have on the entire computing business?

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Microsoft was accused of using its dominance of the software market to squash competitors. Analysts and authorities worried that Microsoft would also control the burgeoning Internet and pivotal software applications.

That was then and this is now. Microsoft missed new opportunities in markets like online search and mobile communications and commerce, fiddling away while the PC became an increasingly quaint device. One of the big winners in the post-Microsoft era has been Google, which lords over a large chunk of the search market.

A week ago, somewhat damning details of an old Federal Trade Commission antitrust investigation of Google were leaked to the the Wall Street Journal. Darn if Google today doesn't look like the Microsoft of yesteryear.

The FTC’s findings from 2012 confirmed that Google has a monopoly in online search, with more than two-thirds of the U.S. market and about 90 percent of the market in some parts of Europe.

More importantly, the commission found that Google wasn’t shy about using that power to its advantage. Some FTC staffers deemed four practices abusive: Google favored its own search results over those of rival websites; it bullied other sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon into letting it scrape their information; it prevented advertisers from running campaigns on other search engines, and it kept other websites from working with rival search engines.

Ultimately the FTC didn’t sue Google for abusing its monopoly power and didn’t find that it had violated any laws. But the Journal story created such a dustup that the FTC released a statement this week, reiterating that it had found “no legal basis for action with respect to the main focus of the investigation -- search.” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and commissioners Julie Brill and Maureen Ohlhausen said in the statement: “As we stated when the investigation was closed, the Commission concluded that Google’s search practices were not, ‘on balance, demonstrably anti-competitive.’”

Yet all of this may be beside the point. If you’re interested in whether Google will be among the most important, innovative tech companies five or 10 years from now, then the very public disagreement over Google’s antitrust practices is sort of a sideshow.

Playing hardball with competitors in search hasn’t made Google a leading company in the areas that matter now to consumers and advertisers, such as social media, mobile and, increasingly, messaging.

Google didn’t respond quickly to shifts in consumer behavior that are making traditional online search -- Google’s wheelhouse -- less and less relevant. As traditional online web browsing becomes less relevant, so too will Google, a company that’s become so synonymous with  search that its name became a commonly used verb ("Just Google it.")

As online search erodes, social networks have changed the way that we discover content - - think breaking news on Twitter and Facebook’s coming deals to distribute news on its platform. This is especially true on mobile devices.

Google’s Facebook rival, Google+, never took off. Even YouTube, which Google owns and which has more than 1 billion monthly users, doesn’t do as good of a job distributing and surfacing great content as the big social media sites. Unsurprisingly, Facebook’s mobile ad revenue is growing by leaps and bounds at a time when Google’s revenue growth, overall, is slowing down.

Mobile, broadly speaking, is shaping up to be another weak spot for Google. When we search on our phones, we generally use apps, not our web browsers. Companies like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon have all suffered because Google suppresses search results for their offerings online, but each of those companies also make apps that have become the go-to search tools for mobile users who want to eat, travel or shop.

Yelp, for example, says that it’s been deeply hurt by Google’s practices. It has also said that its mobile app is a source of strength because it disintermediates search engines like Google.

Google executives are smart enough to realize that being number one in search can’t be their only strategy. So they have struck deals with telecom companies to bundle Google apps on phones that run the Android operating system. (The company also has been accused of pushing Android device makers to exclude apps made by other companies.) But users can ignore the apps that they don’t like. Just ask Apple, which watched customers download Google’s map app when Apple’s own product was deeply flawed.

Android is the most widely used mobile operating system and it gives Google a window into user behavior globally. Google Maps is not only a popular search tool, it’s a platform that other huge mobile businesses have been built upon, most notably Uber. But rivals are conspiring to weaken those businesses.

The startup Cyanogen, which makes an Android-based mobile operating system that essentially competes with Android, has amassed a $100 million-plus war chest from investors such as Telefonica, Rupert Murdoch, and the venture firms Benchmark, Andreessen Horowitz and Redpoint Ventures.

Samsung is teaming up with Microsoft (yes, Microsoft) to bundle apps on Samsung phones, handsets that often run on Android. Uber is making moves to wean itself from Google maps, and it even wants to launch its own self-driving car project that would rival a similar venture Google has worked on for years.

It’s too flippant to say that Google’s search monopoly doesn’t matter at all. It certainly matters to the companies that say they’re being hurt by Google’s practices. If companies like TripAdvisor can’t be discovered in search results, they lose a valuable source of traffic. (Investors don’t seem all that worried about this risk. A few months after the FTC closed its investigation of Google in January 2013, Yelp went public and its shares rallied for two years -- even though the company had told anyone who would listen that Google could kill its business.)

Yet we’ve seen time again in the tech industry that big monopolies become irrelevant in the face of seismic (and sometimes unforeseen) shifts in how people and businesses use technology. All of which brings us back to Microsoft.

Stratechery’s Ben Thompson has described how Microsoft (and IBM) fell prey to this phenomenon, and he says that he thinks Google is next in line for disruption. One of the tactical dangers of being a monopolist is that in order to maintain a monopoly you have to focus your attention on your most dominant offerings, making you less attuned to economic shifts and innovations happening outside of your lucrative bubble.

Back in 2002, it wasn’t obvious that Microsoft needed to start thinking differently about software, just as it wasn’t obvious to Google in a pre-mobile world that the online search industry could be upended.

European regulators are deciding whether to take action against Google for abusive activity, and the FTC's recently-revealed concerns will give those authorities additional fire power to file antitrust charges against the company. Legal action will probably lead to months or years of appeals and recommendations that eventually end in a settlement -- just like the Microsoft antitrust trial that began in 1998 and settled in 2001.

Prosecuting Google may lead to modest changes of its business model. Yet no matter what happens in Europe, I think Google will continue to have a monopoly in online search. That doesn’t mean it will remain a rival to be feared.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net