Google's Huawei ban exposes an alarming app store duopoly
Google and Apple are app store gatekeepers. That needs to end.
Things are looking pretty bad for Huawei at the moment. This month, the Trump administration essentially blocked the Chinese tech giant in the U.S., and Google revoked Huawei's license to use Android on its new smartphones. Concerns about whether China could use Huawei equipment to spy on Americans linger. And even though Huawei denies that allegation, there's no doubt the company is in some trouble.
Still, Huawei has been increasingly praised by the U.S. tech press over the past couple of years. Its Matebook X Pro laptop has been deemed the best available, and its new P30 smartphone has a camera that may well be the industry's best. Globally, the company is the number two brand in smartphones behind Samsung and saw its overall sales jump 20 percent last year. But that success is seriously in doubt. Being banned from the U.S., and lacking the ability to include Android on its phones, means far fewer consumers, especially those outside of Asia, will gravitate to Huawei. Imagine buying a new phone but not being able to use Instagram or TikTok or any of millions of apps available on the Google Play store, or any of Google's services like Gmail or Maps. This isn't a death sentence — non-Android services still thrive in China, for example — but it is a devastating blow.
It is hard not to see these moves as part of the growing trade tensions between the U.S. and China. But what has happened to Huawei is also a function of Google and Apple's duopoly in the mobile market. Perhaps the idea of a closed app marketplace controlled by one or two companies needs to become a thing of the past.
A year after the iPhone launched in 2007, Apple announced the arrival of its App Store, and it was a revelation. Not only did it centralize the experience of finding useful software, it automated updates and provided quality control to help users avoid malware or viruses.
The App Store also instituted the idea of tech products being part of a vertically-integrated, closed platform. Apple and Google (with its Google Play store) became the dominant platform owners for mobile, because their scale and network effects made them the gatekeepers for companies that wanted to enter the mobile market and access the app marketplace. Even a company with as much power as Microsoft could do nothing to break the mobile duopoly.
So whatever your opinion of Google's Huawei snub, it certainly demonstrates just how much power Google has, and how that power is centralized. For phone makers, Google is the only option — Apple being its own walled garden — and for app makers and consumers alike, the App Store and Google Play are the only existing choices.
This is hardly a secret or conspiratorial. Huawei has long been attempting to develop its own operating system, precisely to prevent such situations as this. Similarly, despite being the largest Android vendor by far, Samsung still has its own Tizen operating system. Building your business on someone else's platform leaves you at their mercy. There's also the question of user experience: Consumers can't actually buy books on the Kindle app on an iPhone or iPad, because Amazon understandably wants to avoid the 30 percent cut that Apple takes on its operating system.
Perhaps a closed app store linked to a platform has outlived its early usefulness. Not only does it cement power among entrenched companies, it also puts up barriers to competition. This idea isn't so radical. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that Apple's customers can sue the company under antitrust law for monopolistic behavior for the way in which it takes that 30 percent of everything on the app store. There are technical avenues forward: Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs, operate in a more open, more platform-neutral manner, and have significantly improved in functionality recently; they could offer a more neutral way for companies to offer apps outside the constraints of an app store.
But the broader point is this: As smartphones and their related technologies become more and more ubiquitous, consumers and citizens need more options to access, use, and reuse them. Perhaps that means downloading software from app stores controlled solely by Apple and Google shouldn't be the only option. Huawei may be feeling the pain for now, but the trouble with centralized control is that, eventually, the problem is going to extend to all of us.