Will Google Dodge An FTC Antitrust Bullet?

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

The Federal Trade Commission‘s antitrust investigation of Google is about to come to a head, by most accounts. But it’s a complex case touching on several aspects of antitrust law and whether Google’s search and other activities violate any of them, and the implications for Google, its investors, and Internet users could be huge.

Two attorneys intimately aware of the case provided contrasting views at a webinar this morning conducted by the investment firm International Strategy & Investment and its senior managing director Bill WhymanGary Reback is an antitrust lawyer most famous for representing Netscape in its antitrust case against Microsoft in the 1990s. He now represents several vertical-search companies, such as NexTag, that have complained about Google practices. Geoffrey Manne is a lecturer in law at Lewis & Clark Law School and executive director of the International Center for Law & Economics,which receives financial support from Google and other companies. He has written extensively about his belief that there is no strong antitrust case against Google.

The main takeaway: Despite a Bloomberg story last week that said the FTC was wavering and unlikely to attack Google’s core search business–and another today that repeats that assertion–there’s no agreement by the two sides on what the FTC will end up doing. Reback seemed to acknowledge that Google might find a way to maneuver politically around the FTC to avoid a full-scale assault on the way it conducts its search business. But he also noted that the European Union is closely watching the outcome and may act on its own if the FTC does nothing more than a settlement on the more minor issues.

One key point on timing: Press reports say there’s a Dec. 3 meeting between FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz & EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia. What’s more, Leibowitz is expected to leave for private practice around the end of the year, so that could affect the case one way or another. And if it means anything, Bloomberg says Google CEO Larry Page met with the FTC today. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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Surprise: Google Cofounder Larry Page Takes Over As CEO

It was no secret that Google cofounder Larry Page hankered to be CEO at some point. (I should say, again–he was the founding CEO–but it always seemed from what I heard that he wanted another shot at the appropriate time.) Today, he got his wish, as Google just announced that he will take over from Eric Schmidt as CEO, focusing on product development and technology strategy. Schmidt will be executive chairman, handling deals, partnerships, government outreach, and other external matters, as well as serve as internal adviser to Page and cofounder Sergey Brin, whose title will be simply cofounder. He will focus on special projects, while Page’s key jobs will be product development and technology strategy.

Currently, Page is president of product and Brin is president of technology. By design, the trio was a single executive office that made decisions jointly–an arrangement that apparently wasn’t working as well as they wished for a company that now has more than 24,000 employees. Google has been slow to respond, at least with winning products, to key developments such as social networking.

More on the implications after the following comments at the start of Google’s earnings call. Here’s Schmidt on the call (edited after listening to the call again):

Continue reading

What’s Coming on the Internet in 2011 (Or Not)

I know I shouldn’t do it–predictions too often are either obvious or wrong–but I can’t help it. If I have to think about what’s coming in 2011, and I do, I might as well inflict those thoughts on the rest of the world. Isn’t that what blogging is all about? Anyway, here’s what I expect to see this year:

* There will be at least one monster initial public offering in tech. Take your pick (in more or less descending order of likelihood): SkypeGroupon, ZyngaDemand MediaLinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook (only if it has to). But despite many stories that will call this event a bellwether,  the IPO won’t bring back anything like the bubble days of the late 1990s (and thank goodness for that) because there are still only a few marquee names that can net multibillion-dollar valuations. UPDATE: Well, so much for that descending order. LinkedIn apparently will be the first to file–though whether it will be a “monster” IPO is another question. UPDATE 2: Well, here’s that monster IPO–since it’s hard to believe Facebook won’t go public if it has to disclose financials anyway. But it likely won’t happen until early 2012. Update 3: Now Groupon appears to be leading the IPO derby. Update 4, 1/20/11: Now it looks like Demand Media will be the first out. Again, not sure that’s the monster one, but if it’s successful, more will come.

* App fever will cool. Good apps that encapsulate a useful task or bit of entertainment–Angry Birds, AroundMe, Google Voice–will continue to do well. But those apps that do little more than apply a pretty layer atop Web content won’t get much traction–and moneymaking opportunities are uncertain in any case. The bigger issue: Once HTML5 becomes the widespread standard for creating Web services, enabling much more interactive Web services right from the browser, I wonder whether the need for separate apps will gradually fade. Continue reading

What Happened in 2010–and Didn’t

Somehow I persuaded myself a year ago to offer up predictions for what would happen in 2010–and what wouldn’t happen. Now it’s time to take my medicine and see how I fared.

What I said would happen:

* Merger mania will accelerate in technology, especially acquisitions of smaller firms. OK, so it was a bit of a gimme, but I got that right. Google alone bought more than two dozen.

* Branding will start to become more apparent in Internet advertising, with Google leading the way in display. I guess it became somewhat more prominent a push, but I’d say I was a year too early on this.

* Google’s software efforts will finally establish it as more than a search company, making it apparent what this pony’s second trick is. Android certainly established itself, the Chrome browser made significant gains, and Google Apps got some big new customers. Chrome OS was late, though delivered through an alpha laptop, and remains unproven, and so does Google TV. Overall, it’s an impressive showing, if not enough to identify software as its next trick.

* Yahoo will surprise on the upside, thanks in part to a pickup in brand spending. Wrong! Well, the latter happened, but not enough to buoy a sinking Yahoo. It laid off 4% of its staff and jettisoned once-promising operations. Well, there’s always 2011–and maybe that’s all there will be if CEO Carol Bartz can’t demonstrate that she can finally turn things around.

* Mobile applications will start to take off for the masses. Two words: Angry Birds.

* Twitter’s main business model will become more apparent, but won’t knock everyone’s socks off. That’s just about right.

* Facebook will keep growing, providing perhaps the first test of whether social media is a blockbuster business after all. No doubt about that, even if it’s not yet certain how profitable the company will be.

What I said wouldn’t happen:

* Tablets won’t be the next big thing in client computing. As popular as Apple’s iPad was, tablets didn’t take the world by storm in 2010. But I don’t doubt they’ll be much bigger in 2011.

* There won’t be as many tech IPOs as venture capitalists and startups are hoping. And no, there weren’t, even if 45 did go public, up from 16 in 2009. And none of them were the big names such as Twitter or Facebook that some had hoped for.

* Real-time won’t be a business. When’s the last time you heard that buzzword? Maybe when real-time search engine OneRiot did a layoff?

* Online advertisers won’t escape a privacy backlash. And they sure didn’t. More trouble is coming in 2011, too.

* Google won’t get hit with a major antitrust lawsuit that so many have been predicting for years. True, and it doesn’t look any more likely today.

So actually, I did pretty well, even if you could argue that some of those weren’t exactly stretches. Next up, predictions for 2011, and another opportunity to look like an idiot.

Investors to Yahoo: Growth, Please

Can Yahoo grow again? That’s the question that has been dogging the Internet uberportal for years, and its second quarter report won’t change that question. Revenues rose just 2%–not an unexpected showing but disappointing to investors nonetheless. It also doesn’t help that Yahoo actually lowered its revenue expectations for the full year by $70 million, representing a drop of 11% from 2009. In after-hours trading immediately after the announcement, shares fell about 5%.

The basics vs. analysts’ forecasts:

* Gross revenues of $1.6 billion came in a little lower than the $1.64 billion forecasts.

* Operating income of $175 million came in just under expectations of $178 million.

* Net income of 15 cents a share topped forecasts by about a penny.

You can hear the analyst call and see financial slides here,  as well as all the numbers here, so I’m not going to liveblog everything, but will present some of the highlights from CEO Carol Bartz and the analysts’ questions.

CEO Carol Bartz opens the analyst call and concedes Yahoo came in at the low end of its revenue guidance. Income from operations, up 32%, was pretty good, she said, but she immediately addressed why revenue disappointed: Yahoo didn’t monetize searches as much as expected. In the second week of June, Yahoo also saw a number of major customers hold back on ad buys. She says that situation has improved since then, however.

She says the most important metric to track is engagement with its users. She points to the recent acquisition of Associated Content and Yahoo’s Upshot as examples (though I’m not entirely clear how) as well as social, with Yahoo’s Pulse, and social games, with the agreement to host games from Zynga. She also mentions “one of my favorites,” Bikini 101. Ack.

Bartz says things are more promising in display. On Yahoo’s own sites, display ad revenue rose 19%. That’s partly thanks to new ad formats that are getting people to click and watch.

All in all, I’m doubtful this update will jazz investors. But then, Bartz has always said Yahoo’s turnaround is a multiyear project. She’ll probably be right.

On to the questions:

Is display ad sentiment getting back to that double-digit level after the mid-June swoon? I didn’t catch a solid answer from Bartz.

Why did page view growth decline 4% despite the World Cup? CFO Tim Morse: Talks about difficulty of which metrics to use but concedes the decline is “a little surprising.” Says Yahoo thinks it’s starting to see traction on some of the new initiatives.

When will the transition to a new paid search system happen? Bartz: Still shooting for October.

Was there also a decline in search ads budgets the last few weeks of June? Bartz: Search was actually sluggish for us the whole quarter?

How about mobile? Bartz: Very small percentage but very very important for the future.

Any details on where cost cuts are coming from? Morse: Across the board. Trying to self-fund each initiative.

Can Yahoo still command premium display ad prices? Morse: Yes, on home page and Yahoo Mail log-in pages. Bartz: Our guaranteed pricing was up a lot. Non-guaranteed (remnant ads) down.

Yet another question on why display ad forecast isn’t up much if at all for the third quarter. Morse: Q3 always tougher to call because it always comes down to September. Bartz: Consumer confidence is really weird now. So appopriate guidance.

And that’s about it. Yahoo’s shares are down almost 7% now.

Questions About the Google-AdMob Deal–and How the FTC Answered Them

Today the Federal Trade Commission decided not to oppose Google’s proposed purchase of leading mobile ad firm AdMob, clearing the way for the $750 million deal to be closed. Given recent hints that the FTC’s staff might recommend the commission block the deal, the decision was something of a surprise. But as the FTC itself explained, “although the combination of the two leading mobile advertising networks raised serious antitrust issues,” there is in fact ample competition in what is after all still a nascent market.

The investigation raised several questions about not only the mobile ad market but the FTC’s stance on such deals in the Obama era. Here are some of those questions, and the apparent answers:

* Would the deal allow Google to dominate the mobile ad market?

Not at this time, the FTC said, but noted that that was a danger:

Google’s proposed $750 million acquisition of AdMob necessitated close scrutiny because the transaction appeared likely to lead to a substantial lessening of competition in violation of Section 7 of the Clayton Act. Those companies generate the most revenue among mobile advertising networks, and both companies are particularly strong in one segment of the market, namely performance ad networks. The Commission’s six-month investigation yielded evidence that each of the merging parties viewed the other as its primary competitor, and that each firm made business decisions in direct response to this perceived competitive threat.

* Are mobile ads a separate market from other online ads?

I’m not sure why mobile ads, which after all are simply ads that happen to appear on mobile device screens, are really a market separate from other online ads. Marketers, after all, usually view them as potential additions or substitutes to display ads or even search ads, and they can in fact be either of those. And if they view them as separate markets now, it’s likely they won’t stay that way as ad technology firms increasingly offer them as a package to marketers. But it’s clear from the FTC press release that FTC considers the mobile ad market distinct–and furthermore that it doesn’t matter how new it is:

The Commission stressed that mergers in fast-growing new markets like mobile advertising should get the same level of antitrust scrutiny as those in other markets. The statement goes on to note that, “Though we have determined not to take action today, the Commission will continue to monitor the mobile marketplace to ensure a competitive environment and to protect the interests of consumers.”

Mobile ad networks, such as those provided by Google and AdMob, sell advertising space for mobile publishers, who create applications and content for websites configured for mobile devices, primarily Apple’s iPhone and devices that run Google’s Android operating system. By “monetizing” mobile publishers’ content through the sale of advertising space, mobile ad networks play a vital role in fueling the rapid expansion of mobile applications and Internet content.

* Did Apple help Google clear the deal?

Um, clearly. According to the commission’s statement:

The agency’s concerns [about the Google-AdMob deal] ultimately were overshadowed by recent developments in the market, most notably a move by Apple Computer Inc. – the maker of the iPhone – to launch its own, competing mobile ad network. … As a result of Apple’s entry (into the market), AdMob’s success to date on the iPhone platform is unlikely to be an accurate predictor of AdMob’s competitive significance going forward, whether AdMob is owned by Google or not.

* Should Apple be afraid of the FTC?

Very afraid. Or at least it should expect intense scrutiny, if the rather detailed description of Apple’s role in this market is any indication:

These concerns, however, were outweighed by recent evidence that Apple is poised to become a strong competitor in the mobile advertising market, the FTC’s statement says. Apple recently acquired Quattro Wireless and used it to launch its own iAd service. In addition, Apple can leverage its close relationships with application developers and users, its access to a large amount of proprietary user data, and its ownership of iPhone software development tools and control over the iPhone developers’ license agreement.

* Is Google off the regulatory hook now?

Not by a long shot. As the commission said:

Though we have determined not to take action today, the Commission will continue to monitor the mobile marketplace to ensure a competitive environment and to protect the interests of consumers.

Indeed, few experts believe that this decision will have much if any impact on other regulatory concerns about Google’s strength in search ads, its moves into other areas such as display ads, or the privacy implications of its vast data collection.

Eric Schmidt: Google’s Next Big Business Is Display Ads

Annual shareholder meetings can be anticlimactic snoozers, but often enough, Google’s are not. There was the time in 2008 when cofounder Sergey Brin abstained from a motion for Google to end its activities in China, on which the rest of the board voted no–providing a clue to Google’s recent decision to stop censoring search results in that country. And with many issues, from antitrust to Android’s challenge to onetime Google partner Apple, continuing to percolate, it’s worth hearing the latest official line from the company’s executives.

Indeed, judging from questions already posted on Google Moderator for the meeting, the interchanges could be lively. One question: “Google top management seems to be too egotistical and aloof about the stock price Shareholders are mad,the stock is down 21%YTD,You play catch up with apple with nexus one and now verizon tablet What is actually going on?” Hostile tone aside, interesting questions.

There are also several shareholder proposals, on China, behavioral advertising and privacy, and sustainability, all of which Google is officially opposing.

So I’ll liveblog the highlights of  the meeting here starting at 2 p.m. Pacific–and in the unlikely event there are any big surprises, I’ll also tweet them here. I’m told there will be a Webcast here, though it wasn’t listed on that page earlier today.

And we’re nearly underway, as Joe Cocker’s Feelin’ Alright and smells from the adjoining cafeteria waft across the room.

CEO Eric Schmidt comes onstage with what will be the usual board introductions, including John Doerr and cofounder Larry Page. And then the shareholder proposal presentations. First the proposal on asking Google to do a sustainability report. Then the proposal asking Google to strengthen its privacy policy, especially with regard to behavioral advertising. Finally the one calling for more protections for human rights in China–by a guy who I think has asked pointed questions at at least one previous annual meeting (I recognize his T-shirt). And, big surprise, they’re voted down.

Now Schmidt comes back on to talk about Google’s business. “We had a very good year.” And did better coming out of  the crisis than many other companies. Core business grew well, internationally and in the U.S. “So all is well after a year of great tumult.”

So what’s next: Schmidt shows a slide entitled “The rich Internet,” and explains the explosion of data, now about 800 exabytes (which is a billion gigabytes), from 5 exabytes from the dawn of civilization to 2003. “No wonder we all have headaches.” Except Google, of course, because search becomes all the more important with that infoglut.

“Search is no longer just a static Web page.” YouTube and search “audiences” are already larger than most television companies. Taking off in mobile too–number of mobile searches up five times from two years ago. “Search is not just a query”–Google Goggles lets you use a photo as a query. Also 550 quality improvements in the last three months.

Schmidt talks about what he calls “the engaging Internet,” like YouTube. Now all of a sudden, the ads need to be engaging too. In five years or so, “the ad we  grew up with will go away.” Click to call, direct links to store locations or the particular product being searched, etc.

“A huge success for us now is display.” DoubleClick was “money extremely well-spent.” Also announced an ad exchange. Some 60% of display advertisers are new to display. “This is probably our next huge business.”

Enterprise business is growing fast too–a few thousand businesses a day, he says, starting to use Google Apps.

Android is going to be either the No. 1 or the No 2 player in the mobile market–not sure yet. We’re trying to build an entire system of openness–the opposite of the other guys. (Yes, he used a plural, even though we all know he’s talking about Apple.)

The Chrome browser, he says, is also a huge success, because of speed, simplicity, and security. Schmidt says Chrome OS should become a third platform for computers (I guess Linux doesn’t count?).

OK, time for questions. Onstage are Schmidt, Page, search experience chief Marissa Mayer, products head Susan Wojcicki, CFO Patrick Pichette, and Kent Walker.

A guy from Consumers Union (I think) asks a couple of questions that seem rather inside-baseball. One is on use of SSL more broadly–Mayer says stay tuned. Another, more interesting: Is there a $700 million kill fee on the AdMob deal. Schmidt doesn’t say, but says he expects the deal to get approved because mobile is a “highly competitive market.”

Another guy asks a convoluted question about the mobile market, ending with: Why isn’t Google doing mobile devices and products more directly? Page says Google is making “tremendous progress” in those areas but thinks the best strategy is to provide a mobile platform.

Q: Is it over in China or what? Schmidt says Google wants to continue business operations in China, but the situation isn’t settled yet.

Q: Will Google run out of computer space for all that data? Mayer: It’s a big challenge to keep up with data, but that’s what makes it exciting. Wojcicki: Algorithms and better technology will improve Google’s ability to deal with growing data.

Q: What is the next big thing? Page: One of the next big things is translation. Other two-thirds of world population not yet online need that. I think that’s really going to significantly change the world.

Three people now have complained about the lack of responsiveness of investor relations. Pichette tries not to look too uncomfortable.

Q: What’s happening with that competition for Google to build a citywide fiber-optic network? Schmidt: Winnowing the list down but no decision yet. Page: We had an Olympics for trench diggers. (Yes, they did.)

And that’s it.

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