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Go Google or Google gone? Fate of search business in judge's hands: Shubhranshu Singh's 'Simply Speaking'

The biggest tech antitrust trial — against Google's dominance in search — is coming to a close. A ruling against it would limit Google's search empire and possibly result in the breaking up of the company, writes Shubhranshu Singh in his Storyboard18 column Simply Speaking

Published: May 23, 2024 12:31:07 PM IST
Updated: May 23, 2024 11:47:49 AM IST

Go Google or Google gone? Fate of search business in judge's hands: Shubhranshu Singh's 'Simply Speaking'Google has grown continuously in the past 25 years from its founding. In terms of revenue, valuation and most importantly, active engagement with consumers, it has come to define big. Image: Mirage C / Getty Images

One of the most important antitrust cases in history is being considered in a federal court in the US. The Department of Justice has alleged that Google is a monopoly that abuses its power over the internet by striking anticompetitive deals for prime placement of its search engine, while Google contends its dominant market share is the result of a superior product.

It’s the biggest tech antitrust trial ever and comes as its multiplicative impact could go far beyond Google. The fate of Google’s search business is now in the hands of Judge Amit Mehta, as closing arguments concluded in the landmark trial. It will also lead to a direct impact on the app economy.

Google has grown continuously in the past 25 years from its founding. In terms of revenue, valuation and most importantly, active engagement with consumers, it has come to define big.

Google’s problems are bigger than just the antitrust case in discovering its next era as a corporate leader. Googlers have always prided themselves on solving the toughest problems in computer science. The money was more a consequence than the target.

Dominating the internet

The Google brand is its most precious asset. Its many businesses all feed back to the brand. Its culture is deeply identified with the brand.

Therefore, if the big idea would be for Google to become a data fiduciary like a bank is with our money, no amount of encryption will help if the brand is rendered weaker. It has the clout to aspire thus.

Daily, billions of people around the world query on Google Search, email with Gmail or use Google Maps to get to their destination.

The tech giant dominates the internet economy. It has consistently spent more than almost any other group or company on lobbying. Its business expansion has been fuelled also by buying hundreds of firms.

In 2023, it generated $307 billion in revenue, larger than the GDP of Finland, Qatar, and Peru. Its revenue taken as equivalent to GDP would place it on rank 45 in the list of nations.

A ruling against it would limit Google’s search empire. The modus operandi of paying billions to secure prime placement for its search bar on Apple’s iPhones or other web browsers would become a thing of the past.

Potentially, it would be forced to sell off the Chrome browser and open up competition to other search engines.

The fundamental question is whether Google stifled competition and hence harmed consumer interest by becoming the default search engine through deals with phone makers and internet browsers.

The Justice Department case has a reputational impact that Google did not keep its monopoly via great innovation and search, but through dealmaking that effectively made it difficult for any competition search engine to thrive.

Two extenuating circumstances may come to Google’s aid – one that the definition of search itself is broad: it happens on Amazon, Spotify, and TikTok. Secondly, it claims that the literal contracts with Apple, Firefox or Samsung are not actually exclusive, but still render it as a default.

If the ruling is that Google isn’t a monopoly, it will demolish the arguments of the state and many others who say Big Tech has grown too powerful. That will apply in mutant versions to all including Amazon and Apple.

In any case, there is likely to be some injunctive relief in case the ruling restricts itself to the nature of the contracts, and that, going forward, such contracts cannot be entered into.

However, when the state went after Microsoft in an anti-trust investigation, it had tried to break it up. So, potentially the government could ask Google to stop certain practices, direct it to divest businesses, or order its break up into separate entities. Google competitors have accused it of branding its power to suppress competition links to travel, maps, and reviews, among others.

Let’s understand the Google world.

Google has nine products with more than a billion users each.

1. Google search — 4.9 billion users

Google is the world’s most important search engine, and it truly dominates the space, controlling 92 percent of the market, which equates to 4.9 billion people (data from StatCounter and the International Telecommunications Union).

This is the business at the core of the government’s allegations.

Microsoft’s Bing comes in second with a paltry 3 percent. Google is the world’s No. 1 site, with more than 86 billion visits a month, according to internet data provider Similarweb.

Now Google has begun putting AI-generated answer summaries, which are trained on content scraped from the web, at the top of search results for more of its users. That could squeeze publishers who rely on traffic from Google for their survival.

Also watch: Why you should definitely try Google's Circle to Search

2. Chrome — With 3.4 billion users

Chrome is the world’s most popular web browser. The vast majority of desktop computers and a huge portion of mobile phones have Chrome as the default browser. This is how Google gets the ability to keep its search engine front and centre, but also allows it to track people all over the internet, giving it incredible amounts of granular data on online behaviour, especially when it comes to advertising and e-commerce.

This edged out Microsoft Explorer or Mozilla’s Firefox. Microsoft’s new browser, Edge, is built off a version of Chrome.

3. Android

More than 3 billion people use smartphones running Google’s Android operating system, the company said in 2021. That is around 70 percent of all the smartphones in the world.

Apple’s iOS is a distant second at 28.5 percent. Android has become the default operating system for most of the world’s phones, hence Google can put its other services, including Search, Maps, YouTube and its app store, in front of billions of people.

4. Google Play Store

Around 2.5 billion people use Google’s version of the app store every month, making it much bigger than Apple’s app store. The Play Store lets Google charge a commission on every app sold as well as get a cut of transactions made through those apps.

Android phones, unlike iPhones, don’t require apps to be downloaded through the official app store, and in China, numerous other app stores exist. Elsewhere, using an Android phone means going through Google to get your apps.

5. YouTube

Google’s online video service is a behemoth in its own right, with 2 billion users, according to the company. YouTube says 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. It’s an entertainment site, quasi social media platform and video archive rolled into one.

If you added the run time of all 454 feature films released in the US in 2022, at an average of two hours per film, you’d get about 900 hours of content. That is less than everything uploaded to YouTube in two minutes.

6. Google Workspace — 3 billion users

Google’s archenemy is Microsoft, and the company has for years worked to compete with Microsoft’s core products — its productivity suite, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Though Google still hasn’t dethroned those products, its own tools have grown rapidly over the years, benefiting from being bundled into other Google services such as Gmail.

At the end of 2022, Google said its Workspace apps, which include Docs, Sheets and Google Drive, had more than 3 billion users.

7. Gmail

Google was late to the email arena, where Yahoo, Hotmail and others had exhausted themselves fighting. It offered larger amounts of free storage than its competitors, it quickly began winning over customers with features and ubiquity.

Now, Gmail is the undisputed king of the email world, with 1.8 billion users. Google now makes people pay for storage leading to a huge source of revenue for the company.

Google also makes money from Gmail by placing ads in it. It is in control of the rules that dictate which emails end up in users’ primary inboxes and which are sent to the spam folder.

Also read: India's Tech Renaissance: Emerging trends and the $100 billion ambition of the ecosystem

8. Google Photos

Google’s photo-storage app grew to a billion users just four years after launching in 2015. It benefited from being wrapped into Google Drive and as a default photo-storage tool on Android phones. But the app is hugely popular with iPhone users, too, thanks to Google’s offer of large amounts of free storage.

Now, millions of people pay Google monthly just to preserve the photos they have stored in the tool, providing a significant extra boost to revenue. Google Photos is also a major proving ground for the company’s AI tools.

9. Google Maps

Google was also late to the map game, with rivals like MapQuest already running major businesses when it first came on the scene. But the company gradually took over the space, and now it’s the tool people predominantly use to navigate the real world.

Google crossed a billion monthly users in 2012, and the company’s user base in the space has only grown since then. Even on iPhones, where Apple has tried for years to get people to use its own default maps app, many people still download Google Maps and use it exclusively.

Maps soon turned into a huge reviews site, shaking the businesses of such companies as Yelp and Tripadvisor, and putting Google into competition with a whole different set of companies. Like most of Google’s businesses, Maps is also an advertising platform.

Big Tech’s grip

Google’s parent company Alphabet is an organisation in the middle of momentous change. It is at the centre of the socio-cultural debate on Big Tech. While lawmakers and trustbusters scrutinise abuses of its market dominance in online-search-and-advertising technology, the very same businesses are maturing and not fuelling endless growth. Monopoly or not, could its base effect in revenue and profitability become its bigger headache?

Google argues that the internet is a lot bigger than it is and that companies like Amazon, Netflix, TikTok and OpenAI are all competing with it for people’s time, attention and money.

We are seeing a real focus in Europe and the US in weakening the grip of Big Tech on the economy, especially with reference to the internet.

It’s a very important judgement in the history of brands and businesses.

Watch this space.

Shubhranshu Singh is VP and CMO, Tata Motors CVBU. He writes Simply Speaking, a special column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.