The FTC Has the Wrong Hang Up in the Mobile Ad Wars

Last Updated May 5, 2010 11:22 AM EDT

Maybe it's not quite as bad a show of Luddite-ism as Supreme Court judges not understanding email, but when it comes to digital technology, there are few Washington sideshows dumber than the FTC's antitrust investigation into Google's potential purchase of mobile ad network AdMob. Google said it wanted to purchase the network, the world's largest, in November, for $750 million.

To the FTC, the deal must look like this: biggest player in online advertising wants to buy biggest player in mobile advertising. Uh-oh. That Apple bought Quattro Wireless, which itself has distribution in more than 100 countries, for $275 million in January probably didn't register all that strongly on the FTC radar screen because it's not seeing the big picture.

Since Google announced the AdMob acquisition, a few small things have happened -- like Apple selling more than 17 million iPhones in the last two quarters, and selling one million iPads in the first month since its debut. Both are, in case you hadn't noticed, mobile devices on which Apple controls an awful lot, accepting and rejecting apps somewhat arbitrarily, and so forth.

In the last month, Apple has gotten even deeper into the ad business, launching its own mobile ad platform, the iAd (see this post by my colleague Jim Edwards for details). While Apple claims that its devices will be open to outside networks, it isn't exactly what it seems. As it's proven so vocally with its rejection of Adobe's Flash, Apple makes itself pretty hard to work with unless you're using its tools. The developer documents for the iAd, per AllThingsD, seem to make it difficult, if not impossible, to integrate iAds into third-party software. That includes things like the measurement tools most advertisers and agencies work with, and covet, because they can often run across platforms and provide an essential outside viewpoint on how ads actually perform in the marketplace.

Leaving aside the question of whether Apple's approach is a smart business move, all this does start to make Google's desire to have a significant presence in the mobile ad world not look so, well, antitrust-y. As Edwards points out, the company's approach thus far in mobile advertising has been positively kumbaya -- as it wants to work with the advertising community, instead of issuing edicts to it. And then there's the device issue. While these ad networks certainly don't have to be specific to one mobile OS, doesn't it mean anything that so far, Google's Android OS hasn't set the world on fire the way the iPhone and iPad have?

Well, apparently, it does. As I was writing this post, word got out that Apple, too, now finds itself the possible object of an antitrust investigation, not over iAds per se, but over changes to the iPhone developer rules that mean apps can't be built with third-party software.

As mobile is an emerging category, it seems like the best reference point for the FTC in evaluating antitrust isn't the size of the players involved, but which of the main players are showing willingness to play well with others. If your company is helping to spur on the dynamism of the category by recognizing anybody's ability to innovate -- without bias toward a particular set of tools -- then, for now, the FTC should give you a pass.