Jung-Haeng Lee (Co-Founder and Developer, VCNC)*
I am an Android developer. I developed an Android-based social networking service called “Between” in 2011, which became a very popular service in Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, etc. I, as a developer who has grown with the expansion of application market, feel frustrated with the recent discussion about Android monopoly.
Last month, the European Commission made headlines in many media with its antitrust charges against Google. Google was also brought to a similar inquiry by the Fair Trade Commission of Korea in 2013, which was later cleared by the commission. The news from Europe has triggered voices advocating re-investigation in Korea, but this needs a cautious approach.
Declared open source for everyone, Android has continued rapid growth by attracting a number of manufacturers and telecommunication service providers to its ecosystem, and now it is the mobile platform with the most number of users. Android’s open policy served as a stepping stone for manufacturers to enter the smartphone market faster with lower costs, and telecommunication service providers have taken advantage of Android to offer mobile internet services to many users. Such openness has served as a driving power for Android to grow as a global mobile platform. On the other hand, fragmentation is a serious problem for developers. Open platforms like Android are prone to fragmentation, or the proliferation of several incompatible versions of the same operating system. Google has made huge strides to solve some of the jarring fragmentation issues facing developers since 2011 and the pain from the fragmentation has been actually relieved. It is irony and even sympathetic, though, that the efforts with a good intent has brought Android antitrust issue to Google. I’d like to elaborate what it means to Android developers, including myself. Let’s take a closer look at the fragmentation issue here.
Fragmentation: A headache for users and the ecosystem
If Android apps do not run the same way on different Android devices and cause various problems, it does not only mean a headache to the developers and manufacturers: Users themselves also face the challenge of checking if an app runs smoothly on their devices. Fragmentation was an issue in Android’s early days. Developers used to spend a lot of efforts to test their apps on various Android devices, sacrificing precious time to develop functions that really matter. Fragmentation hindered them from developing better Android apps.
This would not only pose challenges to developers. With continued fragmentation, Android app developers would not be able to test their apps for all Android devices, hence give up on minor devices with a smaller number of users. This would in turn encourage users to choose popular devices that run well with many Android apps, ultimately leading to only few, widely-used survivors in the market. Smaller Android device manufacturers would be in trouble, and technical innovation through competition among various devices would be hindered. This would not only interfere with manufacturers but also obstruct users’ freedom of choice.
In addition, if users keep experiencing troubles in using Android apps on their devices, they would end up choosing another, non-Android platform. If this continues, it would result in overall decreases in the number of Android users and developers will have less incentive to develop Android apps. Reduced market size for Android would damage Google, as well as all developers, manufacturers, and telecommunication service providers involved in the Android ecosystem. As such, fragmentation is a serious problem that may significantly impact the entire Android ecosystem.
Anti-fragmentation agreements: a god-send for developers
One of the efforts Google has made to resolve the fragmentation issue has been to give manufacturers the choice to adopt the anti-fragmentation agreement (AFA) and the compatibility definition document (CDD). They serve as guidelines for manufacturers to apply Android to their devices, thereby making stable devices that would allow Android developers to develop apps without facing the fragmentation issue. Thanks to years of efforts, Android has made its ecosystem, which used to experience serious fragmentation, more stable
Google’s such actions have raised antitrust issues, claiming that Google uses the AFA to force manufacturers to preload its apps in Android devices, which would constitute abuse of the market-dominant position of Android. But even signing the AFA, Google allows manufacturers to simultaneously preload other apps that have the same functions. In addition, users are allowed to substitute for Google apps by downloading other basic apps by themselves.
Android enhances consumer choice through allowing multiple app stores
Questions around Android’s app store, Google Play, are also worth addressing here. To developers, having only one big app store covering the whole world is more beneficial, as they would be able to sell to Android users worldwide rather than only to Korean customers. A big app store like Google Play Store is needed for the Android ecosystem. But this does not necessarily mean that Google is blocking other markets. Google allows other businesses to run Android app stores. Devices marketed through telecommunication service providers have their own Android markets, and ones sold by Samsung contain Samsung’s own Android market app. In other devices, Android market apps can be downloaded on the web. Considering various aspects, many developers often use other companies’ Android app stores rather than Google Play iStore.
In this way, Google has been striving to resolve the fragmentation issue and at the same time to keep Android’s distinctive openness. Google’s endeavors geared towards resolving fragmentation should be seen from a separate viewpoint from antitrust. Android’s antitrust issue should be approached in consideration of many aspects. A wrong choice may greatly affect the Android ecosystem. It requires a prudent decision that comprehensively considers the opinions of all interested parties in the Android ecosystem including developers, telecommunication service providers, and manufacturers.
*VCNC develops Between, a social network service for couples and other applications.