Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition pursuing an $8 billion case against Android, was recently quoted as saying
“Android is in my view a very, very interesting operating system.”
That may be the only thing we can agree on.
Where we differ, and frankly where Vestager poses a very real danger to developers like me and to consumers, is that she views Android as a captive of Google, casting herself in the role of liberator. Sound crazy? That’s because it is.
Android’s greatest strength has always been its greatest weakness: It is an open platform, maintained by thousands of companies, millions of developers and more than a billion users. That competition of ideas is responsible for Android’s success, and the success of 1.2 million European workers who make a living from the ecosystem. But such openness also brings fragmentation, and with it risks to security and interoperability. To put it simpler: a fragmented ecosystem creates a virtual free-for-all which costs developers time and money, limits innovation and poses a threat to user privacy and security.
So how do you create a safe space for creators and consumers without crushing Android’s free spirit? After years of trying (and often failing) to get it right, Google appears to have found the right balance. The company incentivises manufacturers to meet certain standards — these include minimum performance and security requirements, software interoperability, and the expectation that phones will work well out of the box. Meanwhile, anyone can take Android and make it their own, for free and without restriction. Hundreds of millions of consumers in China and India use Android devices that are fully independent of Google.
Even with these incentives, there are still challenges. The manufacturers are slow to push updates, including security patches, to devices. They often auction space on the home screen to the highest bidder, including advertisers and data miners. Developers have to contend with device-specific bugs and peculiarities that cost us time and money we could spend building innovative new products. I fail to see how any effort to curb these practices, as Google has attempted, can be considered a danger to consumers, but that’s the position Vestager takes.
The commissioner (who owns two iPhones) believes these agreements are illegal, and is threatening to impose her own vision of the future on a platform she doesn’t even use. We are only just emerging from the bad old days when phones had a multitude of disconnected operating systems and development was prohibitively expensive. Even now, as Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide writes, “Android looks increasingly in danger of falling apart.” Vestager’s attempt to rescue Android from its success is likely to be the catalyst of that disintegration.
It’s all so incredibly frustrating, because, as an Android developer, I am steeped in the competition Vestager says is missing. We all are. There are more than two million apps on the Play Store. The five top games are developed here in Europe. Spotify is the biggest music service of its kind in the world, defeating Google, Apple and Jay Z on a platform Vestager would say disadvantages the Swedish startup. Every day, new apps and services explode into the mainstream, many of them built here in Europe. Consumers have access to phones as cheap as $50, allowing everyone to own a smartphone, and because developers can code to a somewhat consistent platform, individuals and small teams are able to compete on equal footing with massive corporations.
Commissioner Vestager argues that I need help to compete with Google. With all respect, please don’t tell me about my business. Her actions and unnecessary regulations mean more work for us, the developers. Our lives are easier when fragmentation is restrained and we can focus on creating and innovating. No one wants to spend their development time adapting their work to incongruous, incoherent, buggy devices. And it would be disastrous for both consumers and developers to return to the vertically integrated app ecosystems of the nineties and early 2000s.
If Commissioner Vestager really wants to help, I have some suggestions. Let’s make sure users have access to the latest software updates and security patches. Crack down on individuals who promote deceptive and malicious software. And at all costs push back against efforts to recreate walled gardens that restrict user choice and freedom of movement — the very thing that would happen if Vestager gets her way.
We have seen, with elections in the U.S. and Britain, what happens when politicians do not listen to the people. The we know better mentality among the establishment can be quite destabilizing. I hope that the EU doesn’t follow these trends and pays attention to us, before it’s too late and the prospering tech environment we worked so hard to build is irreversibly damaged.
Technology moves fast, and government is slow. So take it from me, one of the European developers who is supposed to benefit from this investigation: We’re doing just fine. Better than ever, in fact. Don’t get in our way.