The European Commission’s antitrust case against Google’s Android risks harming innovation and consumer choice, writes Christopher S. Yoo.
Christopher S. Yoo is the John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science and the founding director of the Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition at the University of Pennsylvania.
With 500 million downloads in its first month, PokemonGo was last summer’s greatest hit. Hundreds, thousands, even millions of people began to spend hours glued to their smartphones in the hope of catching strange creatures.
More than just representing the latest fad, the game embodied the full power of the mobile ecosystem, which uses high-speed internet connections to bring together billions of users and to enable new behaviors without barriers.
Despite the myriad opportunities spurred by the emergence of this new technological platform, the European Commission is investigating Android, Google’s operating system for smartphones, out of Commissioner Margrethe Vestager’s concern that “Android stifles innovation.” The key question is whether this is really the case.
The Android Open Source Project created a platform that enables more than a million developers to reach consumers on millions of compatible mobile devices around the world. This promotes innovation among developers, who can create the next big app craze, benefits consumers, who can choose from millions of apps, and hardware makers, who can customise their devices.
Although open source operating systems such as Android offer significant advantages, their inherent flexibility can lead system developers to go beyond tinkering around the edges and instead make fundamental changes to the software’s architecture. If so, “fragmentation” can occur, in which incompatible versions of the software emerge. Fragmentation forces developers to spend more resources on adapting their software for each individual version and resolving user questions and complaints and place less effort on developing improvements, new features and innovations.
Greater incompatibility also harms device manufacturers, who want to ensure that popular apps work on their products. Likewise, consumers may be disappointed to learn that their favorite app is only supported by certain devices.
Today, Google has several measures in place to manage these risks for developers and consumers while giving hardware manufacturers the freedom to build their own customised but still compatible versions of Android like CyanogenMod and MIUI.
The Commission can find a cautionary tale in one of the first successful open source operating systems — Unix — and the pitfalls of failing to ensure compatibility and consistency. AT&T’s Unix collaboration with the University of California at Berkeley was wildly successful.
Over time, however, AT&T began imposing greater restrictions on the distribution of the Unix source code, which led the Berkeley group to attempt to make its version (BSD) completely independent of any code created by AT&T. Other companies began creating their own versions of Unix, some based on BSD, others based on AT&T’s and still others based on neither version. Eventually developers stopped creating apps for Unix, and device manufacturers stopped installing it.
Unix’s collapse represents a classic example of fragmentation. The coexistence of incompatible versions of Unix dashed any hope that Unix would provide a uniform platform that enabled app developers to “write once, run anywhere.” Instead, the software community was forced to disperse its efforts to debug and improve the operating system across multiple, duplicative efforts. The Unix universe also lacked a strong leader with the authority to resolve disputes and to redirect the platform if it strayed from the right track.
The European Commission should not consign Android to a similar fate. Appropriate measures to avoid fragmentation benefit both European developers and consumers and preserve the viability of the ecosystem.
Indeed, mobile operating systems employ a diversity of approaches to prevent fragmentation, ranging from the decentralised, testing-oriented approach taken by Android to the greater control exercised by Apple and Microsoft over iOS and Windows Phone, respectively. Each offers distinctive benefits that must be evaluated according to its own terms.
Given the uncertain benefits of intervention and the dynamic nature of the technology industry, competition authorities would best serve consumers and technological progress by giving operating system providers the latitude to determine how to manage fragmentation in the way that best promotes freedom and the interests of users. Anything less risks depriving European consumers of the full benefits of the smartphone revolution.