The Google Inc. logo hangs illuminated at the company’s exhibition stand at the Dmexco digital marketing conference in Cologne, Germany (Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)  

Google Escapes Microsoft Levels of Antitrust Pain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Wednesday’s European Commission ruling is not good news for Alphabet Inc.’s Google. But even though the headline number looks bad, the punishment is nowhere near as severe as the one regulators inflicted on Microsoft Inc. nine years ago.

Google will have to pay a 4.3 billion-euro ($5 billion) fine — chunky, but easily affordable for the search giant, which has cash reserves of $103 billion. It will also have to stop forcing smartphone makers to install the Google search app and Chrome web browser if they want use the Play Store, its shopfront for other developers’ apps.

But there’s a major difference from the Microsoft case. After the 2009 ruling, the Seattle-based company agreed to present users with a line-up of browsers from which they could choose. The intention was to break Internet Explorer’s then-dominance by giving users the opportunity to pick a rival like Mozilla Inc.’s Firefox or, latterly, Google’s Chrome.

The difficulty with the current case is that, while the Android mobile operating system is fundamentally a Google product, the likes of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. have adapted it to suit their particular smartphones. The European Commission can’t readily force those companies to offer such a choice screen, because they aren’t parties in this case.

So unless Samsung or Huawei decide to develop their own better browsers or decide that other products are better for their users, the status quo won’t change immediately for Google. Today’s decision certainly makes it easier for the hardware makers to do so, but it looks far from a draconian penalty.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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