Google Play Store: Monopolistic Regulation
Google currently runs one of the, if not the most-used app marketplace, the Google Play Store. However, an app store like theirs cannot be successful without regulating it, and as a result, regulating the developers that create apps for it. While some of these restrictions make sense, such as not violating copyright, others are much more monopolistic, with Google even creating exceptions around their own rules to stifle competition. Arguably even worse though, Google makes mistakes as a company with their platform, placing very unfair restrictions on certain developers.
To run the Play Store successfully, there needs to be some ground rules to make sure people don’t spam the store with illegal apps or other apps that wouldn’t be beneficial to the user. Restrictions such as how apps cannot steal the intellectual property of others, how apps need to not regularly crash, how apps need to provide some functionality to the user, and how apps cannot be intentionally malicious or deceptive are all basic rules that almost anyone can understand being in place. WIthout them, the Play Store would be a terrible piece of software to use, and users would switch to other app stores, or platforms besides Android in its entirety. However, where restrictions start to become a hindrance to developers is where the more monopolistic side of Google Play’s restrictions begin to show.
More specifically, Google requires that apps that provide digital services (subscriptions, cloud storage, in-app purchases, etc.) must use Google Play’s payment system, of which, Google takes a 15-30% cut of all revenue (15% on the first $1 million in a given year, 30% afterwards). Considering the sheer number of Android devices, and considering how the large majority of them come bundled with the Google Play Store, it’s no wonder that Google chooses to do this, as it’s a massive stream of revenue, making over $11 billion in 2019 alone from just the Play Store.
Although not nearly as bad as enforcing a payment mechanism, Google does also require all apps to target, at the earliest, one Android version behind the current latest release. Although this isn’t very bad (as apps can still choose to have a much lower minimum version), it shows truly how monopolistic app stores like the Google Play Store are, as Google controls both the operating system the store is on along with the store itself. Although this sounds like it makes a lot of sense, consider the PC space, where game stores like Steam and the Epic Games Store reign supreme, battling against Microsoft’s own Microsoft Store. This monopolistic control over both the platform and store by Google however, devolves quickly as Google places restrictions on some developers, accidentally bans others, and removes restrictions for some, without any regulation currently stopping them from performing this unequal treatment.
By forcing developers to hand over a large chunk of revenue for subscription services, services such as Netflix have voiced their displeasure over the massive cut into revenue. In response, Google has offered Netflix, and only Netflix, an increased cut of subscription revenue, rather than the usual 70%, allowing Google to work around the revenue share they put into place to increase their profits without any mechanism to extend the opportunity to other developers (Sattelberg, 2021). In other words, Google is making an exception to their restrictions and policies to effectively “shut up the complaining companies,”.
Even worse, Google’s monopolistic control allows them to get away with making horrific blunders with their own restrictions without facing any consequences. Two major apps, Tasker an automation app, and Element, a chat app, were both wrongfully removed from the Play Store for violating Google’s own policies, without actually violating them! Although they were reinstated within a day, it’s only a matter of time before this happens again, and without anyone regulating Google as Google does their developers, there isn’t much stopping it from happening again.
Overall, the restrictions for developers publishing to the Google Play store vary wildly in their usefulness to both the developer and to the user. Restrictions that make more sense, such as the restrictions on malware, useless apps, and the inability to steal intellectual property are important, but never need to be mentioned outside of Google’s policies page. However, more egregious policies that Google has for the Play Store, such as forcing developers to lose 15-30% of their revenue to the platform they have to host on (or risk losing out on millions of customers who don’t use any stores other than the Play Store), while having to deal with false app takedowns, and dealing with the unfair exceptions Google makes with some of its partners, show the monopolistic undertone that underlies Google’s restrictions on Play Store apps, and the developers that make them.
Dave, Paresh. 2021. “Google Play app store revenue hit $11.2 bln in 2019, lawsuit says” Android Police, August 30, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/technology/google-play-app-store-revenue-reached-112-bln-2019-lawsuit-says-2021-08-28/
Davenport, Corbin. 2021. “Google reinstates federated chat app Element on Play Store after wrongful removal” Android Police, January 30, 2021. https://www.androidpolice.com/2021/01/30/google-pulls-federated-chat-app-element-from-the-play-store/
Sattelberg, Will. 2021. “It looks like Google’s willing to bend the Play Store rules if you’re a big enough customer.” Android Police, August 30, 2021. https://www.androidpolice.com/2021/08/30/google-allegedly-offered-netflix-a-sweetheart-deal-to-keep-using-the-play-stores-payment-system/
Triggs, Robert. 2015. “Tasker has been pulled from the Play Store.” Android Authority, Nover. https://www.androidauthority.com/tasker-pulled-from-play-store-656147/