Readers of this blog know that we disagree with the European Commission’s Statement of Objections in its Android competition proceeding. One particular area of concern is the Commission’s framing of the Android’s anti-fragmentation agreement (AFA) as anticompetitive. In particular, the Commission contends that the AFA is anticompetitive because it disincentivizes smartphone manufacturers from selling forked (i.e. non-compatible) versions of Android’s operating system. Unfortunately, this reasoning misses the forest for the trees. Yes, Google discourages partners from forking Android, but this is procompetitive rather than anticompetitive. Android fragmentation is a serious problem that, if left unchecked, could lead to the competitive demise of Android, leaving consumers with less choice. Platform-destroying fragmentation is not without precedent. Fragmentation has led to the competitive demise of prior collaborative software projects, such as UNIX and Symbian.
Open Source Software (OSS) is particularly vulnerable to fragmentation because, unlike proprietary software like Apple’s iOS, anyone is free to use and modify the source code without permission (provided they abide by the terms of the OSS license). Without strong centralized governance mechanisms, different implementers can take the code in many different directions to the point where different versions of the software are no longer compatible. If governance mechanisms do not provide incentives for OSS collaborators to maintain compatibility (i.e. stick to standard interface specifications), then software written to run on top of an open source operating system will not work across different versions of the operating system. If Android, like Symbian or UNIX before it, splits into many different non-compatible versions, app developers will be disincentivized from writing Android applications because the time and expense of maintaining multiple different versions of the same app will become cost prohibitive. Remaining developers, facing a fragmented Android platform, may avoid incorporating new Android features present on only a fraction of Android devices. This risk will be magnified if developers start to see the underlying platform as unpredictable going forward and could lead to death spiral, where the platform becomes less useful over time, and begins to shed users, which further disincentives app developers from developing applications for the platform. Given that an operating system without software is relatively useless, a world where many different versions of non-compatible Android is available is not better for competition or consumers.