The Android operating system hasn’t hurt competition in smartphones. Rather, it has expanded it, writes Ken Walker.
By Ken Walker, Senior Vice President & General Counsel, Google.
In 2007, we launched Android, a free and open-source operating system. Smartphones back then were an expensive rarity. We wanted to change that — to stimulate innovation and increase choice for consumers — and it worked.
Android means manufacturers don’t have to buy or build expensive mobile operating systems. As a result, smartphones are now available at dramatically lower prices — as little as 45 euros — and have become much more accessible to many more people. Today, more than 24,000 devices from over 1,300 brands run on Android. And European developers are able to distribute their apps to over a billion people around the world. Android is not a ‘one way street’; it’s a multi-lane highway of choice.
Last April, the European Commission issued a Statement of Objections raising concerns over how we manage Android compatibility and distribute our own apps. The response we filed today shows how the Android ecosystem carefully balances the interests of users, developers, hardware makers, and mobile network operators. Android hasn’t hurt competition, it’s expanded it.
First, the Commission’s case is based on the idea that Android doesn’t compete with Apple’s iOS. We don’t see it that way. We don’t think Apple does either. Or phone makers. Or developers. Or users. In fact, 89% of respondents to the Commission’s own market survey confirmed that Android and Apple compete. To ignore competition with Apple is to miss the defining feature of today’s competitive smartphone landscape.
Second, we are concerned that the Commission’s preliminary findings underestimate the importance of developers and the dangers of fragmentation in a mobile ecosystem. Developers — and there were at least 1.3 million of them in Europe in 2015 — depend on a stable and consistent framework to do their work. Any phone maker can download Android and modify it in any way they choose. But that flexibility makes Android vulnerable to fragmentation, a problem that plagued previous operating systems like Unix and Symbian. When anyone can modify your code, how do you ensure there’s a common, consistent version of the operating system, so that developers don’t have to go through the hassle and expense of building multiple versions of their apps?
To manage this challenge, we work with hardware makers to establish a minimum level of compatibility among Android devices. Critically, we give phone makers wide latitude to build devices that go above that baseline, which is why you see such a varied universe of Android devices. That’s the key: our voluntary compatibility agreements enable variety while giving developers confidence to create apps that run seamlessly across thousands of different phones and tablets. This balance stimulates competition between Android devices as well as between Android and Apple’s iPhone.
Android’s compatibility rules help minimize fragmentation and sustain a healthy ecosystem for developers. Ninety-four percent of respondents who answered questions on fragmentation in a Commission market survey said that it harms the Android platform. Developers worry about it, and our competitors with proprietary platforms (who don’t face the same risk) regularly criticize us for it. The Commission’s proposal risks making fragmentation worse, hurting the Android platform and mobile phone competition.
Third, the Commission argues that we shouldn’t offer some Google apps as part of a suite. No manufacturer is obliged to preload any Google apps on an Android phone. But we do offer manufacturers a suite of apps so that when you buy a new phone you can access a familiar set of basic services. Android’s competitors, including Apple’s iPhone and Microsoft’s Windows phone, not only do the same, but they allow much less choice in the apps that come with their phones. On Android, Google’s apps typically account for less than one-third of the preloaded apps on the device (and only a small fraction of device memory). A consumer can swipe away any of our apps at any time. And, uniquely, hardware makers and carriers can pre-install rival apps right next to ours. In competition-speak, that means there’s no “foreclosure”.
There’s also plenty of evidence that consumers can easily choose which apps they want — something the Commission has recognized in other investigations. The average Android user in Europe downloads an additional 50 apps over the lifetime of their device. Downloading and replacing an app or widget is simple — you can do it in thirty seconds. Users downloaded 65 billion apps from Google Play in 2015 — an average of more than 175 million apps a day. Since 2011, apps offering similar functionality to those in our suite have been downloaded almost 15 billion times. Again, there’s no evidence of foreclosure.
Many pre-installed apps don’t succeed, and many have been extremely successful through user downloads — think of Spotify or Snapchat. Our apps suite approach explicitly preserves users’ freedom to choose the apps they want on their phones.
Finally, distributing products like Google Search together with Google Play permits us to offer our entire suite for free — as opposed to, for example, charging upfront licensing fees. This free distribution is an efficient solution for everyone — it lowers prices for phone makers and consumers, while still letting us sustain our substantial investment in Android and Play.
Today’s mobile devices show all the signs of fierce competition with a wide range of business models: from vertically integrated ones like Apple’s iOS to open-source systems like Android. The rapid innovation, wide choice, and falling prices we see in smartphones represent the hallmarks of robust competition.
Android has unleashed a new generation of innovation and inter-platform competition. By any measure, it is the most open, flexible, and differentiated of the mobile computing platforms.
But open-source platforms are fragile. They survive and grow by balancing the needs of all participants, including users and developers. The Commission’s approach would upset this balance, and send an unintended signal favouring closed over open platforms. It would mean less innovation, less choice, less competition, and higher prices. That wouldn’t be just a bad outcome for us. It would be a bad outcome for developers, for phone makers and carriers, and, most critically, for consumers.
That’s the case we are making to the Commission in our filing today. We look forward to continuing the dialogue.