AdMob is one of the leaders in mobile advertising, and Google is the leader in online advertising, with a search marketshare that looks a lot like a monopoly. So when Google tried to acquire AdMob for $750 million the FTC decided to put the deal under review and maybe block it, which seems reasonable enough given Google’s size.
The problem is that, since then, Apple acquired Quattro Wireless, and from that basis, built iAd, an ad product that looks set to own advertising on the iPhone (which itself has the lion’s share of mobile advertising overall). Not only that, but Apple acquired Siri, a tremendous semantic mobile search product that strikes at Google’s core. This is clearly a space where there is a lot of competition, not a monopoly.
But here’s the real problem: maybe the FTC and other regulatory bodies should look at what happened the last time they tried to break up a monopoly — Microsoft. Microsoft didn’t get broken up. However Google, whom nobody anticipated at the time of the Department of Justice’s investigation into Microsoft, came along and profoundly disrupted Microsoft’s core businesses, not to mention gave it an online whupping.
Antitrust efforts make a lot of sense in slow-moving markets, but experience has shown that the technology industry simply moves too fast for regulators to do the smart thing. In the case of the Google/AdMob deal, they might actually be stifling competition rather than enhancing it, by tying Google’s hands in mobile advertising just when it needs to hit back at Apple. They often show a poor understanding of the actual technology and markets they’re meddling in, as the EU Commission’s probe into the Oracle/SUN deal showed (the Commission feared that MySQL, which SUN owned, would give Oracle a monopoly in databases, even though the popular open source database serves a completely different market than Oracle’s enterprise database products).
What’s most frustrating about all this is that the FTC is pretty much mum about the whole thing. Maybe there’s still a good case that Google/AdMob deserves scrutiny even after Quattro, Siri and iAd. Maybe we’re missing something. But if so, the FTC needs to state it quickly, clearly and publicly. By staying silent and not moving in one direction or the other, they give the image of the classic bureaucrats, slow-moving and out of touch with the market.
We hope and want to believe that’s not who they are. If so, they should show it, quickly.
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