Android goes to China

Google's mobile phone operating system is so malleable even censor-happy Chinese commissars give it a green light

Published July 19, 2010 10:08PM (EDT)

Google's Android operating system for mobile phones boasts two great advantages over its competitors: It's free, and it's endlessly configurable. Google's strategic goal appears to be to get its software on as many phones as possible, while generating revenue from advertising served via the myriad of Google apps —Gmail, YouTube, Maps — as well as from transactions via the Android Marketplace.

But is there an Achilles' heel to too much configurability? What if manufacturers replace all of Google's add-on functionality with their own? Where's the win for Google?

A hint of just such a scenario is discernible within a Monday TechCrunch post arguing "Android Poised for Dominance in China, With Global Implications."

That's right, China — Google's search engine censor bête noire. A country that sees Facebook as a U.S. tool for intervention in domestic affairs, routinely shuts down popular blogs and microblogging services, and in general does its absolute best to keep a lid on the Internet. At first glance, one might be excused for wondering whether Google's license-to-anyone open-source Android strategy fits comfortably into China's top-down control model.

But it turns out — that's exactly the point. Android is so configurable that Chinese manufacturers can adopt the operating system and skip all the rest. They can replace the Android Marketplace with their own app store, make Baidu, China's domestic search giant, the default search engine instead of Google, and so on.

As Chinese developers and mobile carriers replace native Android services with their own e-mail, app stores, search engines, and maps, they sidestep those pesky issues of information freedom while limiting Google's revenue from advertising and app store purchases. As a result, China's burgeoning mobile Internet industry will boast new, officially sanctioned platforms with obvious preference to domestic services.

Maybe the long-term play is based on sheer numbers. China currently boasts around 233 million mobile Internet users, and most projections see that number doubling or even tripling in the next three or four years. If Android gets a significant beachhead in a market that size, it could be well-positioned should China ever reach a point where it realizes that it simply can't control the information consumption habits of more than a half billion citizens.

But in the meantime, there's an odd contradiction at work visible here: The open source operating system ends up providing fewer choices to users. Maybe monomaniacal control has its advantages: After all, you are not going to see Steve Jobs allowing his App store to be taken off the iPhone.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Android China How The World Works Smart Phones