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Alternative app stores and platform branches: Is Android too open?

Android is continuing to dominate the worldwide smartphone market. Google’s open approach with Android is often cited as a major reason for the platform’s success, but recent events beg the question of whether that openness is a double-edged sword.
October 4, 2012

Android is continuing to dominate the worldwide smartphone market. According to the IDC, reporting on the second quarter of 2012, Android has a 68 percent market share with more than 500 million globally activated devices. A more recent comscore report just covering the U.S. puts Android market share at 52.6 percent, which marks a steady rise. Whatever way you look at it, Google’s platform is doing extremely well.

While there are obvious benefits to being in the number one spot, it also makes you the biggest target. Android is undoubtedly under attack in the marketplace, in the courtroom, and in many countries around the world. Google’s open approach with Android is often cited as a major reason for the platform’s success, but recent events beg the question of whether that openness is a double-edged sword.

Alternative app stores

This week we saw the news that Russian search engine giant, Yandex, is launching its own Android app store. It will join a growing number of alternatives to Google Play. Perhaps, the highest profile competitor so far has been the Amazon App Store, but there are quite a few others from GetJar to Slide Me to Android Pit to AppsLib to Opera Mobile App Store to AndAppStore to Handango to Baidu App Store to…well you get the picture, there are loads of them.

None of this seems to be a major threat to Google Play. With over 25 billion downloads and 675,000 apps and games it is clearly the leading destination for Android apps and games. However, is it a good thing or a bad thing for the platform? On the one hand competition is generally good for consumers (that’s the basis of capitalism after all) and so alternative Android app stores tend to offer discounts and promotions to tempt users away from Google Play. The flipside is the hassle of finding them.

It’s good to get freebies and promotional offers, but from a user point of view is it a pain to have multiple app stores on your device? Doesn’t it make app discovery harder?

For Google it surely just means that potential Android profits are lower than they otherwise would be. If you look at a huge market like China, Android’s market share is over 50 percent and growing fast with over 80 percent of Q2 2012 sales and yet Google Play doesn’t make any money there. Only free apps are offered in Google Play in China. Many alternatives have sprung up to fill the void and some developers sell apps directly. In contrast, despite piracy problems, Apple does sell premium apps in its App Store in China and it makes some profit there.

Chinese market

The fastest-growing and potentially biggest smartphone market in the world is China. The threat to Google there is not just the loss of control and revenue related to the sale of Android apps and games, there’s also the threat of branched versions of Android that aren’t compatible. The huge e-commerce company, Alibaba, has created the Aliyun OS.

Google contends that Aliyun is nothing more than a fork of Android and, in a move that surprised many, the company insisted that Open Handset Alliance partner Acer ditch the CloudMobile A800 smartphone and pointed out that it was breaking the rules of the OHA. In a statement at the time Google said:

“Compatibility is at the heart of the Android ecosystem and ensures a consistent experience for developers, manufacturers and consumers. Non-compatible versions of Android, like Aliyun, weaken the ecosystem. All members of the Open Handset Alliance have committed to building one Android platform and to not ship non-compatible Android devices. This does not however, keep OHA members from participating in competing ecosystems.”

It is also important to point out that the Aliyun App Store was (and presumably still is) distributing illegal pirated copies of Android apps and games.

This ramps up Google’s feud with China and it raises a lot of questions about the future of the platform there. There are also reports about Baidu Cloud which is an Android overlay for the Chinese market. Baidu is the largest Chinese language search engine in the world, amongst many other things, and Baidu Cloud essentially rips out Google services from Android and replaces them with its own.

That in itself raises an interesting question about the difference between platform forks or branches and overlays. After all, Amazon and Barnes & Noble do the same thing with Android, to a certain extent.

Google is not Android

Maybe one of the key confusions here is that Google and Android are synonymous. Android was actually born out of the Open Handset Alliance and while Google has obviously been the senior partner and driven development, it doesn’t own the platform. Or maybe we can more accurately say that it does own Google Android but it doesn’t own offshoots that are developed out of the Android Open Source Project.

There’s actually quite a big difference between various devices on the market that are described as Android devices. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others take code from the Android Open Source Project and make their own platform from it. Those devices don’t have access to Google Play and can’t run any Android app or game, only those offered through the respective manufacturer’s stores (even although technically they probably can run any Android app or game).

If they want to use the Android trademark and access the Google Play store then device manufacturers need to pass the compatibility test.

Is this really a problem?

I’ll be honest – I’m not sure. I think it’s a problem for Google rather than for Android. The thing is, right now, there’s no debating who offers the best Android experience – it’s definitely Google. Current competitors can’t beat Google’s range of services and the user experience is second to none. I can’t vouch for that being the case in Russia or China, though. It is also possible that someone will one day offer a better Android experience than Google does.

Android’s future is bright with or without Google.

What do you think? Would love to hear some opinions on this so please post a comment.