How Open is Too Open?

How Google had to adjust the openness of its Android platform, just as Apple had done before them

How Open is Too Open?

How Google nearly lost Android

In 2005, Google made an under-the-radar $50M acquisition of an open-source mobile operating system startup, called Android. 13 years later, and Android is by far the most widely used mobile operating system in the world, with a 75% market share. It was, however, a bump journey.

Smart Phone Wars

Apple released the iPhone on June 29th, 2007 signaling the beginning of the smart phone era. In true Steve Jobs’ style, iOS, the Apple’s proprietary mobile operating system, was originally closed and only Apple’s own software developers could build apps on top of its platform. Meanwhile, Google released the first version of its Android OS on the T-Mobile G1. Whilst hardly a phone that provided a beacon of hope for Google’s ability to compete with Apple in the mobile world, it did emphasize that stark difference in strategies that each company was employing.

  Apple Google
DEVELOPERS Proprietary Apple Apps only Anyone
HARDWARE iPhone Only Any – free to use
OS SOURCE CODE iOS – Closed black box Android Open Source project – Entirely open – based on the Linux kernel, the most widely used open source OS in the world

Apple vs. Microsoft: Take 2

One could be forgiven for seeing this war unfold and drawing stark parallels to Jobs vs. Gates in the late 80s. Steve Jobs was vehemently opposed to opening up Apple’s macOS and charged developers for access to its development toolkits. Bill Gates and Microsoft, however, stayed completely out of the PC hardware business and made it easy for developers to build programs and applications to run on its Windows OS; a quintessential platform strategy that has helped guide many strategies today. Windows went on the be the dominant market leader for several decades.

However, age and experience had made Gates more reasonable. In March 2008, Apple opened the Apple Store to third party developers. While Apple’s mobile ecosystem remained tightly constrained, it was clear that an effective platform strategy required two sides, with iOS in the middle.


How Google got it wrong

If Apple was originally on the far right of the Platform Spectrum, Google’s Android was originally on the far left. Google leadership felt that it had to keep the platform as open as possible, as it was playing catchup with the iPhone. Developers came in droves, as did phone manufacturers who were installing versions of Android onto their devices. However, it was at this point that Google realized that it, like Apple, was too wide on the Platform Spectrum. Amazon and Samsung were both creating their own ‘Android forks’ (alternative versions of Android). This is because the Android had reached such a dominant position in such a short space of time. All a Google competitor had to do was create its own version of Android, including its own App Store, and migrate all apps available in the Google Play Store. Google’s biggest dilemma had gone from having no mobile foothold, to having an open OS in first place that anyone could capture value from.


Google’s Response

When Google announced the AOSP it did not announce that there was a layer on top that was not open-source; the Google Layer. The Google Layer included things like Google Search and Google Maps. Whenever Google saw what was happening with its ecosystem, it reacted by just adding more of the most critical Android apps to the Google Layer. It also created the Open Handset Alliance, that was committed to ‘One Version of Android’ (i.e. the Google Version’). Not joining this Alliance made it almost impossible to ever be given access to the ‘Google Layer’, which was taking more of the value away from the open-source Android layer underneath.

Somewhere in the Middle

So, in the end, the world looked more like this…

  Apple Google
DEVELOPERS Anyone Anyone
HARDWARE iPhone Only Any – free to use
OS SOURCE CODE Closed black box Entirely open for Android Layer. Closed for Google Layer

Whilst there was no convergence of Apple and Google on the spectrum, both refined their degrees of Platform Openness to coincide with their strategies. It is easy to say one side of the spectrum is better than the other, but it is difficult to say that either extreme is a formidable long-term solution.



Platform Revolution by Geoffrey G. Parker, Marshall W. Van Alstyne, Sangeet Paul Choudary


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Student comments on How Open is Too Open?

  1. Really interesting how this story has developed. I wonder how the market would have evolved differently had Apple adopted a more neutral position from the start. It seems like Apple’s decisions triggered Google’s reactions. The other interesting part about this market is that it hasn’t tipped. While Android has a dominant market share, iOS has maintained a healthy position.

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