Much has been said about the filter bubble, how tailor-made search results are affecting how we see the world. The filter bubble is created not by sheer oligopoly, but rather algorithms which are used by most web shops, search engines and sites that have more advanced search functions.
A slightly more traditional expression of oligopoly is that of the mobile market. Android phones and Apple Iphones account for over 90 % of all mobile shipments and that Facebook and Google together account for about 60 percent of the global mobile ad market, numbers which are likely to grow (the newest figures indicate that Android and Iphone devices account for 96 % of all new shipments).
|Worldwide smartphone sales to end users by operating system in 2013|
|Mobile OS Market Share as of 2nd quarter 2013 Gartner|
|Mobile operating system browsing statistics on Net Applications|
|Mobile OS Market Share as of February 2014[update] Net Applications|
Tables provided by Wikipedia
Dominance in the ICT sector is of course nothing new. Microsoft Windows obviously dominated the PC market for years, but access to programmes was not dictated by Microsoft as such, although it was all but self-evident that for software to be successful, it hade to be made for the Windows OS.
On smartphones, however, the OS largely determines what applications one uses as well. The OS comes with a lot of nifty pre-installed apps, often provided either by the maker of the OS or the actual smartphone.
On Android devices, almost all services are connected to the user’s Google account. Google Now is the next logical step: an application which combines information from all sources, creating a reactive (and proactive) application, which changes according to the individual needs of its users. It is not all-too inconceivable that Google will eventually try to replace existing apps with Google Now features.
Windows came with a lot of programmes as well, of course, and so one could say that the main difference is that the mobile apps tend to be a bit more usable. But this is beside the point.
The point is that the software ecosystem on mobile platforms is built around app market places, and not the actual technical platforms (as was the case with Windows). These market places are owned by the OS providers, who also charge a 30 % commission for every app installed. By providing these market places, the OS provider guarantees the quality of the product, at least to some extent, since apps have to be approved. However, the apps may gather whatever data they like to whatever purposes they like, and this is nothing the OS providers care about, as long as the apps themselves don’t contain malware. But who needs malware when an app can gather data on where you’re located, what you search, who you call and who you’re with?
At the same time, however, this also means that the makers of the most popular mobile OS also determine which products can enter the market and how they will succeed – “staff picks”, for example, are bound to be successful. Although it is possible to create independent apps without going to the app market places, it is actively discouraged by the OS and it is also extremely difficult to make money of an app outside the market place ecosystem. This would perhaps not be so worrying, were it not for the fact that access to the global mobile software market is dominated by two single companies. This means a much larger concentration of capital than in the Microsoft days.
See when did Apple’s bank account start to grow? 2008. What else happened in 2008? The App Store opened.
And what else happened in 2008? The Android Market opened. Google’s assets have gone from $32 bn to $111 bn since then. Although the Android Market’s successor Google Play remains less profitable than the App Store, Google is also dominant in the mobile ad sector. So not only does Google determine which apps we use, but also the ads we see.