Google uses Apple playbook to bully Amazon over Echo Show UI

Google is slowly turning into Apple. It has begun by a tit-for-tat battle with Amazon, whereby YouTube videos won’t run on Echo Show,. Maybe next it will start lots of patent lawsuits and begin suing all and sundry – it will if it continues to turn into a second Apple.

In these columns we have ridiculed Apple for its stance on intellectual property and its refusal to work with perfectly good technology, such as Adobe Flash, suggesting this will eventually come home to roost. But the lesson has been that if you are big enough and if you have a US jury trial, you can maintain your size with fairly vacuous claims.

This is all about the coming platform wars. When we talk about platforms, we are usually talking about complicated pieces of code that only the giants of the market can hope to copy or keep up with, which will come to dominate. Linux and Windows Server on servers, Windows on the laptop, iOS and Android on smartphones. Lately browsers themselves have become platforms and in video the Adaptive Bit Rate manifest file types, HLS, Smooth Streaming and HDS have long created three separate islands of content all to the benefit of the vendors, none of it helping anyone else.

iOS and Android spawned a series of tiresome legal battles which have perplexed the end user, frustrated operators and made it harder and harder for smaller technology firms to build applications that were cross platform. Annexing the browser with in-house DRMs has made security far less tough, and piracy easier.

And now we are clearly in the middle of another platform war, and that means patent battles and what we call “software islands.” Apple has protected its markets by making it impossible to get onto its platforms unless it approves of your software – in the App Store in particular, and without you paying your way in.

Interestingly Google learned how to strike out emotionally and needlessly at rivals (throw toys out of pram) from content firms like CBS, which refused to allow their web video services to work with any Google devices. That remained the case until Google came out with Chromecast, and sold it to 37 million people – then suddenly the major content providers wanted to be on THAT platform, and Google its negotiating power back.

But under the motto of “Do no evil,” making everyone’s life harder is sailing about as close to a refutation of that expression as Google has ever come.

The Verge online publication seems to have been the first to notice, that if you ask an Echo Show (the one that has a screen) to show you a YouTube video, it fails and Alexa just say this: “Currently, Google is not supporting Youtube on Echo Show.”

We would have said that “Currently Google is behaving like a spoilt brat, i.e. just like Apple the past two years, and won’t talk to Echo Show.”

The change was made suddenly this week and Amazon issued The Verge with a statement, “YouTube used to be available to our shared customers on Echo Show. As of this afternoon, Google has chosen to no longer make YouTube available on Echo Show, without explanation and without notification to customers. There is no technical reason for that decision, which is disappointing and hurts both of our customers.”

YouTube figures that YouTube is actually a platform. In other words, people are so invested with YouTube that if their Echo Show can’t show them a YouTube video, they will just find another device that will, and will actually believe that it’s Amazon’s incompetence rather than a technology platform war.

Out in the real world, if anyone was able to spend the time to prove that YouTube is, and of itself, dominant, then that move would be anti-trust, as were a number of Apple’s moves and the support that a variety of US courts have provided to a dominant handset maker. However given that the Trump administration has forgotten how to spell anti-trust, we must put that aside for now.

While there are only a handful of Echo Show devices out there, it will not show YouTube videos. If those videos are really important so see in their homes on a Show, people will move them to another platform. If they are not that important and if the Show does not become the “de facto” Echo format, then this is all a storm in a teacup.

But here’s what could happen – if people at home want to watch cooking videos or keep fit videos and that’s why they bought the Show, then suppliers will have to begin putting them onto other platforms, dumping YouTube in the process.

Google’s version of events is somewhat different – it says that it was in
negotiations with Amazon, but that Amazon’s implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show creates a “broken user experience.” Presumably it wants to add tiresome little details like including Google search as the default search, ensuring there are no ad blockers developed for the platform and allowing the users to switch to OK Google, and install it as the default. This is one of the first shots fired in the voice war and it’s going to get dirty –(or noisy).

What are the chances that Google makes this objection last just about as long as it takes it to put a screen on its own smart speaker.

This is NOT about Amazon not selling Google Chromecast, because it competes with products that it makes. Once you have bought your Chromecast you can use it anywhere. Amazon is not saying that Prime customers cannot view its Instant video over it – as it goes to any browser. And if it did, it is nowhere near a monopoly, as there is Netflix. But YouTube is being a bully, and that’s why it has started to look like Apple and as a result we have already changed our preferred search engine to Bing.