Non-Google Play Evolution Outside of China

An interesting trend in Android is how they are removing features from the core operating system (which is open-sourced) and adding them to Google Play Services which is closed source and requires a restrictive license from Google to install.

This is a way to solve the fragmentation problem that Android faces. More insidiously however, it is also a way for Google to pressure OEMs and exert strict control of Android.

The problem is, Google is incapable of imposing this restriction in the largest smartphone market in the world. In China, more than 70% of smartphones do not have Google Play services, which means that applications that require Google Play will fail to work for Chinese users.

This is a huge issue of itself. However, the future implications are even larger.

Because Google has removed core applications from open-source Android (AOSP), this creates an ecological niche for third-party developers. Chinese developers are free to create app stores, maps, calendars, chats systems, digital content distribution stores, payment systems, video apps, search apps, location services and a lot more without competition from Google. This is certainly what is happening right now in China. There is a thriving ecosystem with lots of competition in these areas, whereas in other parts of the world, Google tends to crush other players creating a much less vibrant market.

Within the vibrant ecosystem, competition will encourage players to innovate and improve their services faster than a single company, even if that single company is Google. These Chinese services will eventually rise to a level that is of higher quality than Google.

The next issue is whether these services will transfer to countries outside of Google. The Google Play Service licensing restrictions explicitly prevent OEMs from removing the Google search widget from a prominent location. This makes it difficult for Chinese services to replace Google Play on licensed phones. For the Chinese services to be emphasized higher than Google Play, OEMs will have to forgo Google Play altogether.

Is this possible? What would be the economic incentives to do so.

Although this scenario is at least a year into the future and anything may happen till that time, it is important to note that a free OS strategy (Android) is not substantially different from a cost for license strategy (Microsoft Windows). The fact that Android is free does not make it easier or harder for the Chinese alternatives to go to market.

For example, in the Windows PC world, PCs came bundled with all kinds of unnecessary and unwanted “crap ware”, because “crap ware” companies paid the OEMs to load it onto their products. In the future, some Chinese companies could pay Android OEMs to remove Google Play from their devices and instead preload their own offerings. In fact, that is probably what is happening in the Chinese market right now. I would be very surprised if the Chinese service providers did not try this as they launch in other countries.

In conclusion, the following in how I feel about Google’s strategy.

  1. It is understandable for Google to move desirable features out of Android open-source, and to move them into closed source so that they can exert more control.
  2. However in the long-term, it allows alternative services to thrive in certain niches. In the case of China, this niche is happens to be huge and vibrant.
  3. In a few years, these alternative services could mature to the point that they can challenge Google in markets outside their current niche.
  4. Instead of mostly ignoring China, which this Google Play strategy is doing, Google should think of ways to undermine the companies that are enjoying the Google-free void. The threat of these companies challenging Google could actually be larger than US companies like Microsoft or Yahoo.