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Google warns of smartphones turning more expensive

Google has partnered deeply with India in the last several years of its exciting digital transformation. However, at a time when only half of India’s population is connected, the directions in the CCI’s order strikes a blow at the ecosystem-wide efforts to accelerate digital adoption in the country.

Google is appealing these directions before Indian courts. While there has been a lot of reporting and debate on the subject, it is critical that our users and stakeholders understand the full import of what lies at stake.

Android is a key part of the Indian mobile and Internet growth story
In 2008, when Android launched, access to smart, internet-enabled devices was a huge challenge due to prohibitive costs.

Over the last 15 years, through Android’s free open source software and suite of high quality apps, Google has helped device manufacturers make smartphones more affordable by a vast margin. Today, any user can get their hands on a fully functional smartphone at less than Rs. 6000 from numerous brands.

For a country like India, where the cost of adoption is the biggest barrier to digitisation, this has had profound implications. More users have incentivised more developers, and each of those developers achieve immediate scale by writing a single app for Android.

The number of annual app downloads in India reached a new high of 29 billion in 2022, making it the second biggest app market after China (Source: App Annie), offering developers in India and elsewhere, a strong platform to establish viable businesses on Play.

This thriving ecosystem of users, developers, telcos and OEMs has created fertile conditions for a number of innovations – including critical citizen services – to build on the foundation of expanding access:

  • India’s digital payments story, a global case study, is underpinned by the government’s Jandhan – Aadhar – Mobile trinity. The ‘mobile’ pillar in this three-pronged structure is largely powered by Android.
  • India’s resilience during the pandemic, pivoting quickly to remote learning, remote work and leveraging telemedicine was possible because of deep investments made towards affordable mobile data, ubiquitous connectivity, and crucially, affordable smart devices, powered by Android, in the hands of citizens.
  • As we look ahead, the largest priorities for India – from meaningful employment, education, healthcare or financial inclusion – will each require wide availability of affordable devices.

What’s at risk now?
India has seen a huge acceleration in the number of people coming online via smartphones. As we look beyond the estimated 700 million users who are already online, safety, affordability and expanded use cases for the next wave of users will be the pillars that will determine digital adoption. Unfortunately, the ordered remedies on Android strike blows to these very areas:

Increased exposure to online harm and privacy risks:
When there are many different and unique versions of Android (so-called ‘forks’), it harms the consistent and predictable ecosystem that has benefitted users and developers for over 15 years.

Devices built on incompatible ‘forks’ would prevent Google from securing those devices, as these versions will not support the security and user safety features that Google provides.

Lack of robust and consistent security upgrades will leave the users of those devices exposed to cybercrime, bugs, and malware – which is most troubling for the millions of new internet users who are especially vulnerable.

Predatory apps that expose users to financial fraud, data theft and a number of other dangers abound on the internet, both from India and other countries. While Google holds itself accountable for the apps on Play Store and scans for malware as well compliance with local laws, the same checks may not be in place for apps sideloaded from other sources.

Unchecked proliferation of such apps on less secure devices can expose vast swathes of Indian users to risk of their data being exposed and pose threats for individual and national security.

CT Bureau

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