When Google left China’s search market back in 2010, it seemed like an end to the company’s attempts to seriously engage with the China market. Yet somehow, just a few years later, Chinese people are buying phones in droves that run on Google’s Android platform. 86 percent of the new smartphones sold in China run Android. Most of China’s so-called “home grown” mobile operating systems are just Android ROMs. Even China’s MIIT feels that Android’s dominance poses a potential threat. Heck, even Google’s biggest domestic competitor Baidu has launched a mobile OS that runs on Google’s Android platform. Yet for some reason, China’s state-run media organs seem to be fixated on Apple.
The anti-Apple parade began a few weeks ago with CCTV’s annual World Consumer Rights Day show, in which it accused Apple of treating Chinese customers unfairly because of allegedly discriminatory return policies. Since then, the echoes of anti-Apple sentiment have only grown, in part because some people have hitched their wagons to that train in hopes of getting some free hype.
Yet for all the talk about “China’s war on Apple,” I think Google is the real concern. As my colleague Steven pointed out on Friday, Android’s market dominance in China means that Google essentially controls a huge chunk of China’s mobile industry; thousands of app developers and indeed entire app marketplaces revolve around the Android platform, so much so that even the Chinese developers who want to create unique mobile OSes are essentially forced to make them Android forks to ensure that users will even give them the time of day. Think about it this way: how many Xiaomi users would still be using MIUI if Android apps didn’t run on the platform?
I should state that personally, I don’t think Google really poses a threat to China, although its dominance of the mobile market certainly does take some opportunities away from Chinese companies. But if Chinese authorities are worried about the influence foreign tech companies have over the domestic market — and I imagine they are — it is surprising that there hasn’t been a stronger push towards a real home-grown mobile OS that can compete both domestically and abroad. That’s doubly true given that China’s government already knows Google is opposed to the country’s censorship polices. Google could, for example, release a new version of Android that made it easy for users to circumvent the Great Firewall. It hasn’t, of course, but if it did, the vast majority of China’s smartphone owners already own phones that could run it easily.
Personally, I think it would be great if that happened, but my guess is that China’s government doesn’t. So where is the push-back against Google, and the calls for a real home-grown mobile OS? I’m not sure.
Last week Steven argued that Firefox OS is China’s best hope at a homegrown mobile platform, so perhaps the government is waiting to see how that pans out. But I can’t help but wonder if Ji Yongqing wasn’t right when he argued that the problem lies much deeper and that China will not be able to create its own mobile OS under the current conditions. If that’s true, then China and its mobile marketplace are a little bit at the mercy of Google. It’s strange that we keep seeing headlines about how evil Apple is when in theory, Google could pose far bigger problems.
Disclaimer: I’m not trying to defend Apple here; it probably deserves the stick its getting and even if it doesn’t, I’m mad at the company anyway because yet another of its crap-quality power cords has broken on me. And, as I said earlier, I think if anything Google is likely to use its influence over China’s market for good, not evil, so I don’t think China actually has much to worry about. But since Chinese government authorities (like government authorities everywhere) seem inclined to worry about this sort of thing anyway, I thought it was worth pointing out that for all the bluster about Apple in the press, Google is the real 800 pound gorilla in the room (figuratively speaking).