“Google controls too much of China’s smartphone sector”

Reuters published an article that summarizes a recent white paper from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. In the white paper, the ministry expressed concern that Android has too much market share in China, and that Google has discriminated against local companies in the ecosystem, as well as restraining their development in certain cases.

The white paper is early signs of a regulatory threat, but that’s not what I’m interested in discussing – Google has long had a tumultuous relationship with the Chinese authorities, and this development would also further reinforce the stereotypical view (in the west) that the Chinese government favors local companies and discriminates against western tech companies.

I have not used Android much in China, but I’m having some ongoing experience as I have a temporary Android phone while I’m currently in China. This device is a sample of one, of course, but it paints a very different picture than the notion that Android has too much control over China. The phone is a Samsung phone (model number GT-S5820) deeply customized for China Mobile. It runs a heavily modified version of Android 2.3.6. There are no Google services installed on the device; instead, it comes pre-loaded with 5 different browsers, courtesy of all the local Internet giants (a browser from Sina, a browser from Tencent, Opera, etc.). The map application is from Autonavi, the major local player (which Google also sources data from, if I’m not mistaken). What I was surprised at was the lack of any pre-loaded apps from Baidu – perhaps they didn’t get a deal with China Mobile?

I wonder how many Android phones in China are like this one – yes, it is running Android, but for all intents and purposes, Google has no say / no gain from this device. It merely provides a free OS on which all these other players provide their own value add. Samsung is the gate keeper for OS upgrades – it seems I’m locked on 2.3.6, unless I hack the phone and gain root access. There are one-click apps that help do that, but probably the majority of users will not go through the hassle of rooting their phone and loading the latest and greatest from Google, especially when the phone is deeply customized for them already – all the services are very local.

When Google made its high-profile exit from China a few years ago, it also burnt all bridges for profiting from Android in what is probably Android’s largest market. If the Chinese government piles on regulatory action on top of this, the irony would be too rich. Regulatory fireworks aside, I expect local companies to continue to thrive off of forking Android – what will be really interesting is if any of those local players can gain enough domestic traction to start pushing their version(s) of Android in international markets.

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