A new report from Vox has shown that even companies as large as the social network giant Facebook have raised concerns about the duopoly Apple and Google hold over the mobile internet through their app stores.
The report contains new information on Project Oxygen – a plan Facebook started working on in 2013 to protect itself against the Google Play Store and the control it gives Google over Facebook’s mobile app distribution on Android devices. The name refers to Google’s ability to “suck all the oxygen out of the room” in terms of mobile distribution if it ever chose to ban Facebook from the Google Play Store. The plan itself includes strategies for getting Facebook onto Android devices outside of the Google Play Store through methods such as sideloading – downloading and installing the Facebook app from a mobile web browser instead of the Google Play Store.
The report goes on to say that Facebook was reliant on Apple and Google for its distribution and dominance. According to a former Facebook executive quoted in the report:
“Thereʼs a duopoly in mobile, and they [Apple and Google] control distribution. If they wanna pull you off the App Store, they can do that. Thatʼs a lot of control.”
Project Oxygen was started over six years ago when the mobile internet, the Apple App Store, the Google Play Store, and the smartphone market were nowhere near as big as they are now. For Facebook to recognize Apple and Google’s as mobile internet gatekeepers in 2013 reflects just how much power these companies hold over the market.
This new information on Project Oxygen places even more emphasis on an issue that companies and regulators are starting to focus on more closely in 2019 – the way that Apple and Google control most of the access to the mobile internet through their app stores.
Earlier this year, Facebook felt the full force of this duopoly power during the Facebook Research app scandal after it was caught abusing Apple’s Developer Enterprise Program. Apple responded by briefly revoking Facebook’s ability to use and distribute internal iOS apps. This reportedly caused internal chaos at Facebook by leaving employees unable to open company apps on their iPhones which prevented them from testing beta versions of Facebook apps such as Messenger and Instagram and also stopped other internal apps from working.
The popular video sharing app TikTok has also recently had direct experience of how much control Apple and Google wield over the mobile internet when a court in India demanded that the app be removed from local app stores. Both Apple and Google complied with this request and removed it from their app stores in India. TikTok has now returned to India’s app stores but the incident served as yet another reminder of how Apple and Google have the ability to instantly cut any company’s mobile internet distribution, regardless of their size or popularity.
The music streaming app Spotify’s experience on the Apple App Store is another example of how this store gives Apple a massive amount of control over the mobile internet. Spotify claims that Apple’s ownership of the App Store gives Apple Music, a direct competitor to Spotify, a huge competitive advantage because it allows Apple to charge fees to competing apps and impose restrictions on developers of those apps.
Regulators and politicians are starting to pay attention to the massive amount of control Apple and Google have over the mobile internet. The EU recently fined Google for requiring Android device makers to pre-install the Google Search and Google Chrome apps in order to license the Google Play Store on their devices. It also ordered Google to change its anti-competitive business practices. Google responded by promoting alternative search apps and browser apps to users of its Android operating system in Europe.
2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has also laid out plans to break up Apple and Google if elected. Her plans involve preventing large tech companies from selling their own products on the platforms they own. This would mean Apple and Google would no longer be able to sell their own apps through their app stores.
The pressure on the mobile internet duopoly held by Apple and Google is growing and this new information about Facebook’s Project Oxygen highlights just how much power is collectively concentrated in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Companies, regulators, and politicians are starting to pay attention to this and we’re likely to see a lot more scrutiny of how Apple and Google control the mobile internet throughout 2019.