Published on July 1st, 2020
Written by Lianrui Jia
The coronavirus has toppled any kind of normalcy that we are used to. It also laid bare the failures of our digital technologies. Tech companies are scrambling to make statements on changes in the operating system that enables contact tracing technologies, while the Chinese government, in collaboration with Alibaba Health, assigned each citizen a health code through Alibaba’s Alipay app to control and monitor the spread of coronavirus during the country’s return to work. The problem, however, is that to obtain a health code, one must have a smart phone. In June 2020 a lorry driver in China picked up an elderly individual in his 70’s who had been walking for over a month (nearly 600 miles) to get to his destination because he does not have a smart phone nor a health code. Without a health code this man is denied access to public transportation or hotels. The mobile phone, hailed as tech tools to solve problems, turns into a tool of exclusion. And yet, the very issues of digital exclusion and technological access are often overshadowed and rendered invisible when we are busy pondering our own privacy and security concerns.
Figure 1. An example of Health Code, accessed through Alibaba’s Alipay app. Photo Credit: Xiaofang Niu.
Scholars have been talking about the “platformization of infrastructures” and the “infrastructuring of platforms.” The basic ideas behind these developments approach infrastructure as crucial to the very operation of our daily lives, and assume that as Big Tech companies grow so ubiquitous and popular, they become infrastructure-like. 1 The splintering of the public provision of infrastructure paves the way for private actors to take over. The wide adoption of mobile phones systems in parts of the developing world have turned them into ready-made tools undergirding the operationalization of many state digitization projects. In China, local governments have collaborated with the country’s super app, WeChat, turning it into a digital identification card, digital wallet, digital court, and – in general, an infrastructure — to gauge credit data. The emergence of super apps such as WeChat and Alipay in China, Line in Japan, and KaKao Talk in Korea also suggests the importance of different cultural and social uses and appropriations of mobile phones. Meanwhile, these private actors are becoming increasingly significant as they serve in policy planning as well as in the processes of upgrading national infrastructure.
Figure 2. Interface of Alipay, integrating families of apps into one, including food delivery, hotel booking, ticketing, money transfer, credit card and bills payment, financial investment apps and loans. Photo Credit: Xiaofang Niu.
Mobile apps only became significant after Apple iPhone introduced the App Store in 2008.2 App stores and subsequent app markets have drastically transformed the meaning of the mobile phone as a technical device, and made it fun, mundane, and ever more integral as part of daily life and rituals. It also brought about exciting opportunities to developers and thriving economies of selling apps, digital advertising, and in-app purchases.
Figure 3. Street vendor and stall display QR code for customers to scan and pay through Alipay and WePay. Photo by the author.
Mobile app stores have become an important chokepoint in several aspects. For developers, especially individuals and smaller companies, they are the primary distributor and regulator of apps. Mobile app stores play a crucial role in shaping the privacy standards, revenue distribution, and exerting editorial control over app review and publication processes. For users, mobile app stores’ curatorial power often reflects the society’s embedded social, political, and cultural values. For tech industries, the mobile apps store is a connective glue that links hardware manufacturers to the software industry, and it also offers emergent business models for device manufacturers. For example, China’s device manufacturer, Xiaomi, reported that they cross-subsidize their device sales losses by selling advertising on their mobile phones and on pre-installed apps. Thus, mobile app stores have become an infrastructure for platform services. Their power is played out across various actors: companies that host app stores (such as Apple, Amazon, Tencent), platform companies that own the operating systems (Apple and Google), handset device manufacturers (Huawei, Xiaomi), developers, and users.
Figure 4. This figure shows that there are stark differences in the Android and iOS version of the same app studied. The iOS version of the same China-based app is relatively better at notifying users for its data collection process. Figure from Lianrui Jia and Lotus Ruan (2020) “Going Global: Comparing Chinese Mobile Application’s Data and User Privacy Governance at Home and Abroad,” article forthcoming.
Given the ownership of iOS and Android, Apple and Google form a tight duopoly over the mobile operating system. With the ongoing trade tensions between China and the United States, mobile technology has become a flashpoint of geopolitical contestations. Part of my post-doctoral research looks at the political economy, interdependency, and battles of power between state actors, U.S and Chinese tech companies, and handset device manufacturers. The United States banned Google from selling and licensing core Android products to Huawei because the company was placed on the U.S Entity List in 2019. This was likely because Huawei phones no longer build on the Android system but use its own Harmony operating system, and Huawei phones no longer come with preinstalled Google apps such as Gmail and Google Play Store. Apple App Store, on the other hand, is mired in controversies with its operation in China. To continue its operations Apple App Store had to take down several apps during the Hong Kong protest in 2019,3 and again during the outbreak of coronavirus in China at the request of the Chinese government.4 Apple App store’s 30% revenue loss has already generated pushbacks from Netflix and other companies alike.5 In another incident over revenue distribution, Tencent has contested Apple’s 30% cut of in-app monetary gifts transactions. Tencent’s flagship WeChat app builds in a tipping function, allowing users to tip content creators. However, Apple claimed that tipping was the same as in-app purchasing, therefore justified the 30% cut. The dispute resulted in Tencent’s suspension of WeChat’s tipping function. Later, Apple dropped the 30% rule and revised the terms for its App Store.
Figure 5. The Tecno brand appears on buildings near the Kariakoo market in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 2018. Photo by Lisa Parks.
Although Apple and Google together form a tight duopoly in many national markets, discussion about platform power needs to move away and beyond the fixation on U.S. GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) platforms and Chinese BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) platforms to look at marginalized regional markets and more granular interplays between mid-to-small size market players. Africa has quickly caught up with booming mobile phone markets. An active player in the African mobile phone market is Tecno cell phones, manufactured by Shenzhen-based Transsion company, that makes up 40% of the mobile market share. With long battery life, better camera functions, dual-SIM cards, and a Swahili keyboard, Tecno phones are gaining popularity through their localization strategies. Tecno phones are running on HiOS, which is developed based on the Android system. Through the export and sales of mobile devices, Chinese app developers also gain an important inroad into the vast global market. With key investments in NetEase, BoomPlay, the music streaming apps, China quickly gains market success by pre-installing on phones sold. These emerging business models and local adaptation will have an impact on how mobile devices reach the next billion internet users. Furthermore, how state, platform companies and device manufacturers exercise power and negotiate with each other in the political economy of mobile phones will shape the way mobile phones are used, appropriated, and profited from as digital technology and an infrastructural component upon which many social services are delivered.
Lianrui Jia is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. Her research areas are platform studies, political economy of media, and internet regulation. For more information about her research and teaching, visit: lianruijia.wordpress.com.
- Plantin, Jean-Christophe, Carl Lagoze, Paul N Edwards, and Christian Sandvig. “Infrastructure Studies Meet Platform Studies in the Age of Google and Facebook.” New Media & Society 20, no. 1 (2016): 293–310. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816661553.
- Morris, Jeremy Wade, and Sarah Murray. Appified: Culture in the Age of Apps. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018.
- Byford, Sam. “Apple Removes App Used in Hong Kong Protests after Pressure from China.” The Verge. The Verge, October 10, 2019. https://www.theverge.com/2019/10/10/20907596/apple-hong-kong-protests-app-removed-china.
- Hume, Mike. “Plague, Inc. Removed from China’s App Store.” The Washington Post. WP Company, February 28, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/video-games/2020/02/28/plague-inc-removed-chinas-app-store/.
- Perez, Sarah. “Netflix Stops Paying the ‘Apple Tax’ on Its $853M in Annual iOS Revenue.” TechCrunch. TechCrunch, December 31, 2018. https://techcrunch.com/2018/12/31/netflix-stops-paying-the-apple-tax-on-its-853m-in-annual-ios-revenue/.