Why China Is Different, Also for Mobile Operating Systems

China’s technology ministry has published a whitepaper that criticises Android’s perceived dominance in the local smartphone market. I’d say it is thus far the strongest reminder that mobile computing in China is unlikely to follow the same path as the other major markets. It is what I have earlier identified [client access only] as one of the remaining main opportunities for the new wave of OSes that are pushing forward with the “more open than Android” proposition: namely including Firefox OS, Sailfish, Tizen, and Ubuntu. The whitepaper’s rhetoric doesn’t constitute a shove or even a push, but more of a nudge. But you know, before a push comes usually a nudge. So this space is certainly worth following in the future, for it may surprise you.

There are various reasons why I view China as such a lucrative ground for decidedly customisable, open-source OSes that can enable Chinese firms to come up with their own mobile platforms. I would classify these reasons into three different, if somewhat over-lapping categories:

First, geopolitics and national security: Chinese policy-makers’ fears about digital spooks, kill switches, and all those cyberwarfare things from foreign lands hidden in a less-controlled OS. Largely the same logic that has seen the US authorities giving a cold shoulder to Huawei and ZTE applies also to this context.

Second, economic protectionism: China wants to favour domestic companies because it sees that they can contribute more to the economy and employment. This is related to the first aspect, given that domestic players are also easier for authorities to play with, but my gut feeling is that the main driver is the desire to nurture national champions.

Third, genuinely commercial reasons: Chinese OSes will have an edge because they can address the local market better than the off-the-shelf solutions from abroad. It’s easy to see why Amazon believes that its strategy is served better by using a customised version of Android, and there’s no reason to assume that the same wouldn’t go for, say, Alibaba or Baidu, considering that in a country of that size they’d have scale to sustain a forked ecosystem.

If one mixes all these aspects together there’s a recipe for a smart-device landscape that is likely to evolve rather differently from the rest of the world. In my view, how strong Google’s own presence in China isn’t that much of an issue. It’s true that a good share of the Chinese Android handsets are generics that come without Google’s portfolio of apps and services, but that’s not relevant here. The key point is in the fact that the intellectual property and the strategic roadmap behind Android are controlled by Google, a US-based company, and the Chinese policy-makers don't want to see the strategy and IP of an American company extensively shaping up the foundations of the country's mobile computing.

This dynamic makes the Chinese mobile market a very complex place to predict on. While Google is getting most of the attention, there’s no denying that also the true market opportunity for likes of Apple and Microsoft is similarly difficult to assess, for the very same reasons.