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Want to understand the future of Android in Europe? Look at China

Want to understand the future of Android in Europe? Look at China

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A busy street in Guangzhou.
A busy street in Guangzhou.
Photo by Shannon Liao / The Verge

By the end of the month, Google will charge a licensing fee in Europe for the Play Store and apps like YouTube and Gmail in order to comply with the European Commission’s antitrust ruling. Device makers will soon have to decide whether using Google services is worth the fees, while Android as an operating system will remain free to use. With these new conditions, the future of Android in Europe could dramatically transform, becoming a pared-down version that retains the OS but offers fragmented alternatives to what were once cornerstone Google services.

So what would that look like? The clearest example to point to is in China where Google is outright banned. Instead, each smartphone company (that isn’t Apple) runs some version of Android, but there are over 400 app stores in China in place of the Google Play Store. Of the some 400 stores, 10 capture most of the country’s market share, including Tencent’s Myapp, 360 Mobile Assistant, and Baidu Mobile Assistant. The Play Store (downloadable via a VPN) just manages to squeeze into the top of the list, making up a measly 3 percent of app store installs in July, according to market analyst group Newzoo.

Of course, there’s still a huge difference when comparing Europe and China. Much of China is still developing, and the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime. Many of its most profitable tech giants take large subsidies from the government and often self-censor content to abide by authorities’ wishes. But the basic idea of having numerous hubs to turn to to find new apps and services to download is still the same. In China, having a fragmented app store ecosystem creates all sorts of different conditions.

All app stores are not made equal

In China, each app store has a different rating system and a different community of users reviewing an app. Different stores also present apps in a different order, with their own ways of prioritizing which apps to highlight or show in search results. For example, Tencent’s Myapp and the 360 Mobile Assistant contain sections that list the most popular apps among men and women. The immense fragmentation of Android in China, which varies across different smartphone makers, means that the average Chinese user uses nearly 40 apps on their phone a month and about 11 a day, according to App Annie. These numbers are slightly higher than ones for users in the US and Europe. They’re also more likely to have 100 apps on their phones in total.

In 2013, 25 percent of Chinese users said that the most important feature on a smartphone was that it had a wide variety of apps, reports Nielsen. The need for more apps has even driven Chinese smartphone companies to be among the first to offer a whopping 1TB of storage.

Users download multiple stores for apps they want

Chinese users often choose app stores by picking whatever is the most convenient, meaning that often times, they will use whatever comes preinstalled on their phones. China’s major smartphone makers — Huawei, Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi — all include their own app stores on their devices. In the gray market, where phones are sold without official government licenses, they’re sometimes preinstalled with less popular app stores, which accounts for much of the fragmentation in market share. Only 15 percent of Chinese users in 2012 bought their phones directly from the manufacturer, according to Nielsen.

Some apps also receive better service updates depending on their developers. Those who use Tencent’s popular WeChat app, for example, will likely also want to download Tencent’s Myapp, where the latest version of the dominant social media app is released before being made available on others’ stores.

How app developers juggle their options

At the same time, because there are so many app stores, developers in China have to apply to each app store if they want their product included. For example, Huawei’s app review guidelines require developers to provide registration, paperwork, a localized version of their app, and follow strict content guidelines. While the process doesn’t differ extremely from one app store to another, it does become a lot more time-consuming to reach a majority of the population than simply applying to the Play Store. The business has sprouted plenty of marketing agencies in China and channel partnerships that offer to make it easier for app developers to make sure their apps get widely distributed.

Since applying for an app to be included in an app store can be time-consuming, some developers narrow their options to the stores that offer better perks. Baidu Mobile Assistant, for example, offers to display apps prominently in its search results. Paid apps in China are uncommon, and Xiaomi’s app store is one of the few to spotlight them. The 360 Mobile Assistant, on the other hand, is an old favorite that has appeared as number one or two in the charts for the past four years. But it’s also made by Qihoo 360, a company that produces security software that some have decried as computer-slowing bloatware.

In China, app stores also take a larger cut of developer profits compared to the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. While a standard 30 percent of in-app purchases typically goes to the app store, China’s mobile carrier also takes another 30 percent, unless users pay through WeChat Pay or Alipay. In Europe, the landscape is likely to be better regulated to keep fees to more reasonable amounts.

How things might play out

Stripping Android of its bundled Google services could make a lot more room for competitors to take advantage. Without cornerstone apps like Google Maps and YouTube built in, the competitive landscape in Europe might just open up for domestic companies to edge in directly with consumers or through partnerships with OEMs.

Resourceful users might also find a way to access Google services somehow, as they do in China through a VPN. Or perhaps device makers will simply pony up the fee knowing that there aren’t yet viable local alternatives to YouTube, the Play Store, and Google Maps.