The global app industry has grown dramatically in recent years. Creative developers, enabled by harmonized platforms that incorporate inexpensive feature-rich devices and extraordinary software tools, have powered this growth.
But for developers and millions of consumers, the opportunity could significantly diminish if governments reverse technological progress that has been so critical to recent success.
The China market illustrates the risk to developers and consumers. Mobile app developers targeting the China market have a difficult choice. With limited resources, should they write apps for the easy-to-use Apple iOS platform that has only 28 percent of the market, or for the much larger but fragmented Android platform?
In a way, this is the same choice that confronted mobile developers in the U.S. and Europe in the early years of the Android platform. At that time, manufacturers were customizing Android phones to such an extent that app developers were having trouble keeping pace.
American and European developers have reaped the benefits of today’s more unified Android ecosystem.
Android developers wanted to take advantage of phones’ great new features, but they often were forced to code to the “least common denominator” to ensure that their apps would work across all devices. Additionally, developers had to test their apps on many devices to ensure they functioned properly.
This was so frustrating that very few developers prioritized writing apps for the Android platform, despite its popularity with consumers. Within the app industry, developers were quite vocal about their frustrations with Android.
Today’s Android market in China is similarly fragmented. App developers would like to code Android apps once and know that the apps will function properly on all Android devices in China. Instead, developers face different versions of Android from different manufacturers.
Additionally, there are dozens of Android app stores in China, some of which are intended for only a single manufacturer’s or mobile operator’s devices. It is almost impossible for Android developers to keep up.
In the U.S. and Europe, the fragmentation seen in the early years of the Android ecosystem has been largely eliminated. Google invested in the Android operating system and what eventually became a harmonized Google Play platform.
Google’s APIs for maps, music and search provide developers with easy plug-and-play features for their apps, and developers are now confident that their apps and these features will work almost perfectly on every Android device.
The Google Play store is similarly cross-platform and cross-brand, allowing publishers to load an app into the store once and know it will be available to millions of consumers. American and European developers have reaped the benefits of today’s more unified Android ecosystem, which also provides a consistent cross-platform experience for consumers.
If you ask developers if they would rather build apps for a series of incompatible devices or on a unified Android platform, they will always favor the latter.
Android developers and consumers in China are denied this simpler experience because the harmonized Google Play platform is not available there. Android developers targeting the China market remain hobbled by a fragmented ecosystem that taxes their coding resources and distracts them from adding features, marketing, customer service and other business-building activities.
Quizzically, the European Commission is investigating Google’s very successful effort to make life easier for developers and app publishers. The Commission is concerned that Google’s promotion of a common version of Android and the unified Google Play platform has hindered competition for mobile operating systems.
But if you ask developers if they would rather build apps for a series of incompatible devices or on a unified Android platform, they will always favor the latter.
China is now the largest smartphone market in the world. Domestic manufacturers such as Xiaomi, Lenovo, ZTE and Huawei offer some of the most advanced mobile devices and are growing their market shares globally.
There is a vibrant and growing Chinese app developer community, but Chinese consumers and developers are unable to take advantage of all the mobile revolution’s benefits while the environment remains so fragmented.
Back in Europe, the government should take care not to reverse successful harmonization of the Android platform. The European app industry is thriving in today’s exciting and competitive environment. It would be a step backward to reverse years of progress and recreate in Europe the fragmented market that is currently inhibiting app developers in China.