Meaningful choice: AppOps, Android permissions and clashing interests (part IV)

Picking up on the question raised in the previous post: users and software publishers often have conflicting interests– as in the case of Android permissions requested by applications for the purpose of monetizing user data. How does the platform owner arbitrate and who are they likely to side with? Do they enhance the platform with functionality such as AppOps that allow users to protect their privacy at the expense of developer revenue? The answer depends on the balance of power between these actors.

Market power: platform vs developers

One red herring we can rule out immediately: direct revenue for the platform provider does not enter into the picture. Google provides the application market Play Store for Android and takes a 30% commission from each install for paid software. But paid applications rarely have to request excessive permissions and spy on users; they already have a revenue source from distribution. The most egregious offenders when it comes to user tracking tend to be “free” applications trying to make money after the fact, by giving away the application and targeting advertising. Frustrating that model has no immediate impact on the bottom line; that revenue stream is not shared anyway.

Here are three scenarios, with different trade-offs faced by the platform provider.

New entrant

If the platform is late to the game as in the case of Windows Phone or otherwise struggling to gain traction or defend an eroding market position as with Blackberry, it is in desperate need of applications. In this scenario the OS provider will be doing everything it can to court developers, trying to entice them with incentives. Witness how Microsoft offered  cash incentives and heavy technical assistance for startups to port popular mobile apps to Windows Phone.

In this situation the platform owner needs developers more than they need the platform. Why waste time writing a Windows application– which will likely require C# and entirely new development environment that few people are familiar with– when there is a proven market for iPhone and Android apps? Given such tall odds of attracting developers in the first place, it is very unlikely that the platform owner is going to risk alienating them by building functionality that interferes with monetization to advance the higher cause of  user privacy.

Near-monopoly position

This is the direct opposite of the first case. In this hypothetical case, the platform is close to being the only game in town for developers. It may enjoy complete market domination– the way Windows held sway on PCs during the 1990s– or it could be that alternative platforms offer no viable path for monetization even if they have sizable market share. (To the extent that Linux was a viable alternative OS, it did not boast a healthy commercial software ecosystem comparable to Windows and Mac.)

This time around the tables are turned: software publishers need the platform more than the platform needs any one application. In this case the platform owner can afford to take a strategic, forward-looking approach to improving the platform, free from competitive pressure that developers might flee to an alternative market. “Doing right” by users and cracking down on questionable developer practices is a luxury that companies can afford. In this scenario one would expect to see stronger safeguards for privacy, willingness to crack down on deceptive practices and technical features that empower users to defend their own privacy interests against over-zealous developers.

Interestingly regulatory intervention tends to contribute to such initiatives. Regulators often scrutinize companies with dominant market positions, and make demands for improving the platform in ways that represent their policy initiatives. In some cases these demands arguably make the platform worse– as in the drive for stronger copyright enforcement. Other times such demands, often presented as veiled threats for direct legal action, improve user privacy or security by bringing these agendas to the table in ways that ordinary consumers can not and which the platform owner can not ignore.

Competitive market

At least in the world of mobile operating systems, the near-monopoly situation has not been observed for any sustainable period. While Apple had a significant head-start with the iPhone, Android quickly closed the gap and has since surpassed iOS in market share globally. Today most popular mobile applications target both iPhone and Android as practical requirement for adoption. (Granted there can be significant quality differences, with the Android version often appearing to be an afterthought or summer internship project.)

Such competition benefits users as the different platform duke it out over design, performance, features and hardware choices. But it also means that neither company has the liberty of instituting policies that prove popular with consumers while alienating developers. Google in particular faces a particular vulnerability: iPhone users have proved more willing to pay for applications, as well as generate more revenue per user. Android may dwarf the iPhone in sheer number of unit shipments, but it falls far short of the Apple alternative when it comes to supporting a healthy commercial ecosystem for mobile developers.

AppOps: siding with developers over users

Given the competitive dynamics of mobile operating systems, it is not too difficult to see why AppOps was yanked out of Android in a hurry, before it caused any confusion and fear with the  developer community. (It also suggests fancier alternatives to AppOps with fewer side-effects are unlikely to become part of official Android.) In choosing to side with developers over user privacy, the Android team proved they know all too well which side of their bread is buttered.


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