Navigating the tumultuous sea of the digital world: the Google-Enel case study

Alessandro Pastore, Subha Mukherji October 17, 2023 4 min read

In the great tapestry of business, sometimes it is the unseen threads that hold everything together. Such was the case with the clash between Enel Group and Google over Enel X’s Juicepass app, which brought to light the complex issues surrounding digitization, innovation and their impact on the broader goal of sustainability. Issues emblematic enough to become a Bologna Business School case study for Corporate Strategy and Innovation courses, with secondary implications for other areas of study, including Business Ethics, Industrial Organization, Competition Policy, and for cross-cutting discussions of monopolistic behavior in the digital world. 

The Enel Group, an Italian utility company with a long-standing focus on sustainability issues, made significant strides in the energy sector under the leadership of CEO Francesco Starace between 2014 and 2023. As part of initiatives put in place to address the energy crisis, Enel-X was created in 2017, following the acquisition of EnerNOC, a Nasdaq-listed company known for developing energy management software. Enel-X became immediately dedicated to promoting the use of electric vehicles, and with this in mind it developed Juicepass, an application that allows users to locate, book and pay for electric vehicle charging stations, managing the entire procedure directly from their smartphones. The features of Juicepass are not only practical for users, they are also crucial for the company, as they can generate useful data to encourage the electrification of private transport. The app was designed with all the necessary features to ensure its compatibility with major operating systems so that it could be used in the car via the infotainment system. Despite this, Enel faced an immense hurdle when trying to get Juicepass approved for use on Android Auto. 

In fact, in September 2018, the Enel X development team received an email from Google stating that Juicepass was not compatible with Android Auto. Despite Enel X’s challenge, Google maintained its position that only messaging and media apps could be allowed on the platform. This statement contrasted with a conspicuous precedent: Google had already allowed Kakao, a South Korean geolocation app, to be installed on Android Auto. For Enel X, the inclusion of Juicepass in the Mountain View giant’s signature system was strategic, as it represented the possibility of creating a virtuous circle similar to that of the Android ecosystem, in which developers help improve the platform, thus attracting more users and, consequently, developers. Google’s refusal to integrate Juicepass triggered a series of negotiations and discussions that lasted from November 2018 to January 2019.  

In December 2018, Google suggested two alternatives: integrate Enel-X’s charging point information into Google Maps and use Google Assistant for voice commands or develop a version of the Juicepass app for each car manufacturer’s infotainment system. Neither option was satisfactory for Enel-X, and the issue escalated within both companies. Against this increasingly complex backdrop, Google’s cloud services group began lobbying for a solution, driven by its strategic interest in acquiring Enel as a customer. Enel, in fact, was beginning to migrate all of its services to the cloud, consistent with its zero-emission business strategy.  

Despite meetings, negotiations and the intervention of the Google Cloud Country Manager, the situation remained unresolved. One of the last notes from Android Auto managers blamed the decision on safety reasons, citing driver distraction evaluation tests and other technical factors. According to the manufacturers, in fact, an extension of app categories on Android Auto would have required resources not available at the time.  

On February 28, 2019, the crucial meeting between CEO Francesco Starace and the Google Cloud vice presidents finally took place in Davos. The goal was to break the deadlock, with the growing urgency engendered by climate change and the rapidly evolving electric vehicle industry. Google’s decision could have had two possible consequences: to open the way for collaboration and market growth, or to reaffirm monopolistic behavior that had already drawn the attention of the European Union. The outcome was uncertain, with Enel hoping to arrive at a win-win solution for both companies. The rest is history, or rather published news. In the absence of an agreement, Enel-X turned to the Antitrust Authority, which imposed a huge fine of more than 100 million euros on Google. This sanction was confirmed in 2022 by the Lazio Regional Administrative Court, which rejected the appeal and reiterated the unfairness of the action taken by the U.S. tech giant.  

The Enel-Google case study, which also includes unpublished material to support the case, including exclusive interviews with Francesco Starace and Francesco Venturini, CEO of Enel-X, offers a valuable lens through which to explore the complex web of issues that intersect between technology, business and sustainability. It is a story from which much can be learned, as it highlights the importance of collaborating, adapting and constantly striving for innovation in the face of increasingly urgent global challenges, reaffirming Italy’s role on the international innovation front. In fact, as Eric Schmidt, Google’s leader for more than 20 years, pointed out during his commencement speech for the honorary degree awarded to him by the University of Bologna during BBS Graduation 2022, “Italy has the potential to become the most important industrial hub in the world. The next Google can be born here, thanks to a new technological renaissance.” 

This article is based on
Google vs Enel: Innovation, Market Ethics and Strategies of Energy Transition
Alessandro Pastore, Subha Mukherji