Google has partnered deeply with India in the last several years of its exciting digital transformation. However, at a time when only half of India’s population is connected, the directions in the CCI’s order strikes a blow at the ecosystem-wide efforts to accelerate digital adoption in the country.
Google is appealing these directions before Indian courts. While there has been a lot of reporting and debate on the subject, it is critical that our users and stakeholders understand the full import of what lies at stake.
Android is a key part of the Indian mobile and Internet growth story
In 2008, when Android launched, access to smart, internet-enabled devices was a huge challenge due to prohibitive costs.
Over the last 15 years, through Android’s free open source software and suite of high quality apps, Google has helped device manufacturers make smartphones more affordable by a vast margin. Today, any user can get their hands on a fully functional smartphone at less than Rs. 6000 from numerous brands.
For a country like India, where the cost of adoption is the biggest barrier to digitisation, this has had profound implications. More users have incentivised more developers, and each of those developers achieve immediate scale by writing a single app for Android.
The number of annual app downloads in India reached a new high of 29 billion in 2022, making it the second biggest app market after China (Source: App Annie), offering developers in India and elsewhere, a strong platform to establish viable businesses on Play.
This thriving ecosystem of users, developers, telcos and OEMs has created fertile conditions for a number of innovations - including critical citizen services - to build on the foundation of expanding access:
- India’s digital payments story, a global case study, is underpinned by the government’s Jandhan - Aadhar - Mobile trinity. The ‘mobile’ pillar in this three-pronged structure is largely powered by Android
- India’s resilience during the pandemic, pivoting quickly to remote learning, remote work and leveraging telemedicine was possible because of deep investments made towards affordable mobile data, ubiquitous connectivity, and crucially, affordable smart devices, powered by Android, in the hands of citizens
- As we look ahead, the largest priorities for India - from meaningful employment, education, healthcare or financial inclusion - will each require wide availability of affordable devices
What’s at risk now?
India has seen a huge acceleration in the number of people coming online via smartphones. As we look beyond the estimated 700 million users who are already online, safety, affordability and expanded use cases for the next wave of users will be the pillars that will determine digital adoption. Unfortunately, the ordered remedies on Android strike blows to these very areas:
Increased exposure to online harm and privacy risks:
When there are many different and unique versions of Android (so-called ‘forks’), it harms the consistent and predictable ecosystem that has benefitted users and developers for over 15 years.
Devices built on incompatible ‘forks’ would prevent Google from securing those devices, as these versions will not support the security and user safety features that Google provides.
Lack of robust and consistent security upgrades will leave the users of those devices exposed to cybercrime, bugs, and malware - which is most troubling for the millions of new internet users who are especially vulnerable.
Predatory apps that expose users to financial fraud, data theft and a number of other dangers abound on the internet, both from India and other countries. While Google holds itself accountable for the apps on Play Store and scans for malware as well compliance with local laws, the same checks may not be in place for apps sideloaded from other sources.
Unchecked proliferation of such apps on less secure devices can expose vast swathes of Indian users to risk of their data being exposed and pose threats for individual and national security.
More expensive smartphones:
Since incompatible Android forks will not support the security and user safety features that Google provides, security responsibilities for these devices will instead fall to the OEMs, who will need to invest extensively in creating consistent, all-year-round security upgrades themselves.
This will result in higher costs for the OEMs, and consequently, more expensive devices for Indian consumers.
Higher cost for app developers and user exclusion:
As a result of Android’s compatibility program, when developers write apps for Android, the apps can immediately access Android’s vast base of users. This allows even small developers to compete with large developers across the whole Android ecosystem, based on the merit and superiority of the product.
In a forked Android environment, small developers will be forced to prioritize which of the various incompatible Android ‘forks’ they write and maintain apps for, as their costs will increase with each additional version they support.
They will no longer have the level playing field they have today with Android, and larger developers, who can support a wider range of incompatible forks, will be able to dominate the market based on their scale, rather than the quality of their product.
This will be highly damaging not only for developers, but also consumers, who will be prevented from accessing important online services, simply because developers may be unable to make the investments necessary to develop apps for their device.
This is sobering for innovation in the Indian digital ecosystem, whose greatest success stories are of small disruptors creating a better product and winning the user.
Android enables more choice, not less
- The free Android operating system enables device manufacturers to build a wide range of devices at different price points that gives users unprecedented choice.
- Android leaves OEMs free to pre-install any other app and app stores and they all already do
- Users are free to install apps from sources beyond app stores (‘sideload’) - in such cases, Android displays alerts to ensure users act with awareness for their own safety.
- For developers, beyond providing a vast, vibrant platform to reach users, Android offers tools, predictability, timely security upgrades and multiple monetisation options.
- Consistent with the governments’ concern for matters of public and national safety, Android takes accountability for the apps on the Play Store and ensures that only apps that work in accordance with local laws, get the benefit of the platform.
- Android, today, offers the right balance of a consistent security bedrock through baseline compatibility, while device manufacturers have the choice to create bespoke and highly differentiated user experiences for their brands on top of that.
A crucial juncture for India
India is at a juncture where we must come together to bring down barriers to access and make safe and secure smartphones available to all, supported by a flourishing digital ecosystem.
Foundational disruptions at this stage could set us back years and undo the deep investments and effort made by OEMs, developers and the industry overall.
It is a crucial moment for India - and our hope is that we, along with all the stakeholders of this vibrant ecosystem, can continue to build on top of this foundation.