Android, China, and the Wild Wild West

on December 17, 2012

Last week, I talked about the importance for us industry observers, analysts, media, etc., to have a more informed discussion when it comes to Android. I think it is important when we analyze, from an industry and market viewpoint, that we do so with a holistic viewpoint.

My key point in last weeks column was to address the issue of Android platform forking. Android in its purist definition only refers to the AOSP or Android open source platform. Something anyone on the planet can take for their own and fork it, thus differentiating their Android platform and in many cases using the core Android source and making their own platform. Therefore, as it currently stands we have Google with a platform based on Android, we have Amazon with a platform based on Android and we have Barnes and Noble with a platform based on Android. Each of these platforms is their own unique ecosystem.

I make this point because when we say Android has X% market share we are talking about the total including all the forks. This is a key point, because when many make the claim that Android is winning the market share game, they often make the mistake of assuming that Android equals Google, therefore assuming that Google’s version of Android has the total Android market share. This is of course false, as Google’s version of Android, the one that benefits Google in a monetary or data gathering way (a.k.a a business model), has only a fraction of the overall Android market share numbers being referred to. Exactly how much we are not sure because even Google refers to Android falsely making it sound like the total installed base of Android devices on the market have some business benefit to Google and of course that is not true. My gut tells me that if Google did release the numbers of the global install base of Android devices tied to their services, thus qualifying as a Google Android device, the picture would not be as rosy as many make it out to be. No where is that more the case than in China.

The Wild Wild West

As I have been studying the Chinese Android market, the only way I can describe it is the wild wild West. Android is fragmented, un-unified, inconsistent, and otherwise fundamentally fractured in as many ways a platform can possibly be. In fact it is hard to even call Android a platform in China, and there is certainly no Android ecosystem there. There are dozens of app stores, tightly controlled ISP and heavily differentiated experiences and services bundled on the vast majority of Android devices, half a dozen different payment mechanisms, and a general lack of standardization.

The top app stores come from the likes of Tencent, 360, 91, UCWeb (which is a browser) app store and a number of other tier two heavily localized app stores. If I was an Android developer focused on China, I would have my work cut out for me making sure I was present in all the various app stores, or try to go direct to consumers (as many are trying to do), or working as close as possible with the ISP and carriers themselves. This model is somewhat feasible by the larger developers but very difficult for the upstarts and other smaller developers.

What is also very interesting about the Chinese market for Android devices is that the vast majority of the 38 million Android devices sold in China last quarter were extremely low-cost entry level devices. Now, in most cases, this is exactly the kind of scenario that Google would hope for. Google’s mobile business model depends on install base and the best way to do that is to have a plethora of cheap devices so hundreds of millions of people can jump on your platform and you can make some mobile search and ad revenue. The only problem is Google is not benefitting from Android’s success in China in even the slightest way.

The challenges of Google with China are well documented. Over the past few years Google has continually been closing offices in China and largely abandoning the region. Android has not helped relations or Google’s strategy–or lack of strategy–in that region and it doesn’t appear that it will anytime soon. The vast majority of Android devices sold in China have been stripped of all services tied to Google in any way. Here are some key points.

– Local browsers dominate the web browsing landscape
Google search engine market share is less than 5%
– 90% of new Android devices sold in China do not have the Google Play store on them.
– Many developers are choosing local in app advertising solutions over Google’s

China, and in particular the low-end Android segment, is one of the fastest growing segments in mobile. Every day China is accounting for more and more of the Android activations. Android in China has simply become such a customized and regionalized OS that I’d argue the point that Android in China should be considered its own fork. And due to the extremely fragmented and lack of standards around app distribution, I’m not that confident that Android has a sustainable position in the region outside that the devices are cheap. The vast majority of low-end Android consumers in that region are not investing into any specific ecosystem other than the likes of someone like Baidu, for example, which offers their services on a range of platforms, Apple’s included.

Other than Android devices being extremely low-cost, I’m not convinced, based on the data I have on the region, that Chinese consumers are loyal to the regional Android fork. A point, that offers more hope for standardized and unified platforms from competitors like Apple and Microsoft or even some platform not yet released.

The bottom line is, for now, Android is alive and well in China. It represents one of the fastest and the largest growth sectors for not just Android but the mobile market at large growing at about 300% year-over-year. Android is being taken by the natives and customized / implemented to benefit themselves and their heavily regional services. The vast majority of these devices have little to no benefit to Google. Android is doing well in China, Google is not. Something I find fascinating.

I paint this broad picture of Android in China for the hopes that we can have a more informed discussion when we discuss Android. Too many people associate Android’s holistic global success with Google and that is a disingenuous analysis. I’d love to be able to break out the individual Android fork market share, including the regional forks like China, India, and now Africa, but when the handset OEMs–and Google–are not sharing specifics. A situation I find entirely suspect. Although, the more I learn the truths about Android holistically across the forks and the regions, I am getting a sense of why the details are not being shared with us.