Start Up No.1239: mobile adblocking rockets, EU quizzes Facebook on data, the real risk of website leaks, China’s coronavirus challenge, and more


Knitting might seem an unlikely pastime for a spiral of holier-than-thou oneupmanship – so of course it happened. CC-licensed photo by Avital Pinnick on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Set phasers to fun. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Adblocking takes off on mobile phones, a challenge for publishers • CNET

Stephen Shankland:

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The number of people using ad-blocking technology on mobile browsers has surged to 527 million, an increase of 64% over the last three years, according to a report published Thursday. Combined with ad blocking on personal computers, that means a total of 763 million devices were running ad blockers in the fourth quarter of 2019, the report said.

That means about 15% to 30% of website traffic is using an ad blocker, said Marty Kratky-Katz, chief executive of Blockthrough, a Toronto-based company that helps publishers try to cope with ad blocking.


Source: Blockthrough/PageFair

“Although desktop ad blocking has peaked, mobile adoption is growing rapidly,” Kratky-Katz said in the report. One reason PC ad blocking is now waning is that people in North America, Europe and China simply don’t use PCs as much these days for browsing, the company said.

Just because somebody is using an ad blocker doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily have all their ads blocked on the web, though. The top-used browser extension, Eyeo’s Adblock Plus, by default shows ads that meet its Acceptable Ads standard for less intrusive ads, though big publishers must pay to not be blocked. Blockthrough’s business also involves helping publishers show that type of ad to people with ad blockers installed.

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Typically a lot of this adblocking is done by people in developing countries where data is comparatively expensive, using mobile browsers such as Opera. There’s no obvious detail like that in the writeups. (You can request a copy of the report from Blockthrough, which touts itself as “the leading solution for adblock revenue recovery”, which makes it sound something like a firm of internet bailiffs.)
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EU deepens antitrust inquiry into Facebook’s data practices • WSJ

Sam Schechner, Emily Glazer and Valentina Pop:

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The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has in recent weeks ramped up its pursuit of documents related to allegations by rival companies and politicians that Facebook leveraged access to its users’ data to stifle competition, rewarding partners and cutting off rivals, those people said.

Investigators are reviewing changes Facebook made to software interfaces that let app developers access its data, as well as Facebook’s use of Onavo, an Israeli virtual-private-network app the tech giant bought in 2013, the people added. Onavo provided Facebook detailed data on its VPN customers’ use of rival apps, giving Facebook intelligence on competitors before they became major threats, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2018.

Facebook, which shut down Onavo last year, said it used the app as one of several market intelligence tools and disclosed its data collection to users. It has said it maintained a principled approach to working with app developers, and that changes to its platform were geared toward building a sustainable business.

As part of the preliminary probe, the commission in recent weeks ordered Facebook to produce an array of documents—including internal emails, chat logs and presentations related to those topics—using an EU law that allows for daily fines to punish noncompliance, the people familiar with the matter said.

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Exclusive: China’s mobile giants to take on Google’s Play store – sources • Reuters

David Kirton:

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China’s Xiaomi, Huawei Technologies, Oppo and Vivo are joining forces to create a platform for developers outside China to upload apps onto all of their app stores simultaneously, in a move analysts say is meant to challenge the dominance of Google’s Play store.

The four companies are ironing out kinks in what is known as the Global Developer Service Alliance (GDSA). The platform aims to make it easier for developers of games, music, movies and other apps to market their apps in overseas markets, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The GDSA was initially aiming to launch in March, sources said, although it is not clear how that will be affected by the recent coronavirus outbreak.

A prototype website says the platform will initially cover nine “regions” including India, Indonesia and Russia.

Oppo and Vivo are both owned by Chinese manufacturer BBK Electronics. All four companies declined to comment for this story.

Google, whose services are banned in China, earned about $8.8bn globally from the Play store in 2019, said Katie Williams, an analyst at Sensor Tower. Google also sells content such as movies, books and apps on the Play store and collects a 30% commission.

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This is a lot more interesting than Huawei trying to do this on its own. These four – basically the four biggest Android handset OEMs after Samsung – have more than 30% of the worldwide smartphone market, so about 40% of the Android market. That’s the sort of thing that could get Google’s attention, especially since they could put their own app store front and centre (especially in Europe) to attract sales.
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Anatomy of a rental phishing scam 🎣 • jeffreyladish.com

Jeffrey Ladish:

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I was recently the (unsuccessful) target of a very well-crafted phishing scam. As part of a housing search a few weeks ago, I was trawling craigslist and zillow for rental opportunities in the SF bay area. I reached out to a beautiful looking rental place to inquire about a tour. Despite my experience as a security professional, I didn’t realize this was a scam until about the third email! Below I will account the story in excessive detail including screenshots…

[After he has established it’s a scam:] The phishing team—and given the work involved and the level of polish I bet it was a team—ran a pretty tight operation. Their English was perfect, their emails looked professional, and their phishing site looked identical the original Airbnb site. The email domain “engineers-hibernia-chevron.ca” redirected to “hibernia.ca” to add legitimacy for those who took the extra step of looking up the domain.

I’m even more impressed by their subtle psychological tricks. Each step of the way, they left out information which required me to ask for something if I wanted to proceed. It’s a lot easier to be on your guard when others are asking you for things. When you’re the one doing the asking, it’s even harder to say something when things look strange, because you may already feel like you’re being a burden on their time. For the initial ad, they left out the phone number so I had to ask. After they told me I could look at their airbnb site, I had to ask for a link. Then, after they sent me to search on Airbnb’s site, I had to ask for the link again! That was deliberately planned!

Throughout these interactions, they mentioned there were other people looking, maintaining a plausible sense of urgency. Finally, using Airbnb as the phishing site was clever, because it gave the impression of a trusted middleman. I was genuinely thrown off at first, because I couldn’t figure out how they were planning to steal my financial information. If they had just asked for bank or credit card information early on, their game would have been easy to spot.

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Beware. They’re getting better. (Though they still need fake sites to do it.)
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Website data leaks pose greater risks than most people realize • Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Adam Zewe:

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The students [Kin Attari and Dasha Metropolitansky] found a dataset from a breach of credit reporting company Experian, which didn’t get much news coverage when it occurred in 2015. It contained personal information on six million individuals. The dataset was divided by state, so Metropolitansky and Attari decided to focus on Washington D.C. The data included 69 variables—everything from a person’s home address and phone number to their credit score, history of political donations, and even how many children they have.

But this was data from just one leak in isolation. Metropolitansky and Attari wondered if they could identify an individual across all other leaks that have occurred, combining stolen personal information from perhaps hundreds of sources.

There are sites on the dark web that archive data leaks, allowing an individual to enter an email and view all leaks in which the email appears. Attari built a tool that performs this look-up at scale.

“The program takes in a list of personally identifiable information, such as a list of emails or usernames, and searches across the leaks for all the credential data it can find for each person,” he said.

The Experian Washington dataset found by Metropolitansky and Attari contained more than 40,000 unique email addresses. Attari extracted these unique emails and entered them into the tool, which searched for all data leaks in which the emails appear as well as leaked credentials, such as passwords and usernames.

The tool output a dataset of the leaks and credentials associated with the Experian email addresses. Metropolitansky then joined this data with the complete 69-variable Experian dataset, linking users’ cyber identities with their real-world identities.

“What we were able to do is alarming because we can now find vulnerabilities in people’s online presence very quickly,” Metropolitansky said. “For instance, if I can aggregate all the leaked credentials associated with you in one place, then I can see the passwords and usernames that you use over and over again.”

Of the 96,000 passwords contained in the dataset the students used, only 26,000 were unique.

“We also showed that a cyber criminal doesn’t have to have a specific victim in mind. They can now search for victims who meet a certain set of criteria,” Metropolitansky said.

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Luxembourg wants to solve congestion with free public transport • Pop-Up City

Nicolas Carvajal:

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Starting in March 2020, public transport in Luxembourg will be free of charge. Primarily a social measure, this policy will also be implemented to decrease congestion in the capital region.

Luxembourg’s public transportation system is already heavily subsidised as fares in the country are as low as €2 per two hours. Even so, the country has the highest car ownership per person in Europe. This is mainly because citizens and out-of-country commuters argue that Luxembourg’s public transportation is more time consuming compared to driving. Additionally, its unique position between France, Belgium, and Germany, draws lots of commuters across its borders every day.

Therefore, the investment and legislation for free public transportation will be complemented by improving the country’s network, but also for raising the minimum wage, pension adjustments, and financial aid for higher education. For out-of-country commuters, a parallel policy will allow workers to deduct travel expenses from their annual tax bill. However, many citizens argue that the money spent on free transportation and modernising the system can be better spent on rent subsidies or social housing.

Even though free public transportation has existed in Tallinn, Estonia for over six years, there has been no indication that mobility and opportunities for low income residents have improved. Regardless of outcomes in Tallinn, free public transportation demonstrates how social investments can offer multiple solutions for creating more just cities and eventually reverse the trend of growing congestion.

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Public transport is always more time-consuming than driving, unless you have a city like London which actively works to make the latter more difficult (and even then, taxis abound). I can’t see this having any effect unless they introduce a congestion charge on vehicles, particularly from out-of-country. Let’s check back in a year or so.
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How knitters got knotted in a purity spiral • UnHerd

Gavin Haynes:

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In my new BBC Radio 4 documentary I wanted to join the psychological dots between history’s pinnacle nightmares and what happens at the end of your road. I decided to call both the phenomenon and the documentary, “The Purity Spiral”. A purity spiral occurs when a community becomes fixated on implementing a single value that has no upper limit, and no single agreed interpretation. The result is a moral feeding frenzy.

But while a purity spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.

It’s not just another word for ‘woke culture’, or even ‘cancel culture’, or ‘virtue signalling’. Even though intersectional social justice is a pretty great breeding ground for purity spirals, it is one among many. Nor is it confined to the Left: neo-Nazi groups offer some of the clearest examples of purity spirals: the ongoing parsing of ethnic purity into ever-more Aryan sub-groups. Perhaps the most classic one of all hails from Salem, Massachusetts.

It is a social dynamic that plays out across that community — a process of moral outbidding, unchecked, which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.

A purity spiral propagates itself through the tipping points of preference falsification: through self-censorship, and through loyalty tests that weed out its detractors long before they can band together. In that sense, once one takes hold, its momentum can be very difficult to halt.

Our documentary analysed just two latter-day purity spirals — Instagram knitting culture and young adult novels.

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Instagram knitting culture. Yes. It’s a thing. And you definitely see “purity spirals” all the time on Twitter. (This is related, in its way, to Jesse Singal’s piece yesterday on online controversy.)
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Coronavirus outbreak impacts: China smartphone sales to nosedive • Digitimes

Digitimes staff:

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industry and market observers generally agree that a prolonged epidemic will take a heavy toll on both the supply chain and consumer demand. The China smartphone market is very likely to see a sharp drop in shipments in first-quarter 2020, and in a more optimistic scenario, smartphone shipments to the China market will drop 9% if the outbreak can be contained by the end of February, according to some observers.

This is bad news for everyone involved in the smartphone market, including vendors of mobile processors. MediaTek, who has a strong presence in China’s handset maket, may see a sequential decline of as much as 15% in revenues in the first quarter. But foundry house TSMC is not ready to revise its guidance for the first-quarter sales, which according to its forecast given last month, will decrease slightly compared to fourth-quarter 2019.

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The next week is going to be critical in determining how much wider the outbreak gets, and in turn whether this turns into a mild crisis or a calamity for China, and the rest of the world. (The slowdown story is the same for notebook supply, according to Digitimes:

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“Notebook shipments from the upstream supply chain is expected to slip another 10% in the first quarter of 2020 because of epidemic-related issues, such as lockdown of cities and disrupted transportation that are stalling material and component supplies and preventing workers from returning to work.”

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Coronavirus cast shadow over China’s food delivery industry • Tech In Asia

Minghe Hu:

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Beijing resident Anna Wang, 30, is a habitual user of food delivery apps, usually ordering meals and milk tea online every week even though her company provides free meals to employees at an on-site restaurant.

That changed about 10 days ago, with the increasing spread of the new virus from China that has killed more than 560 people, with more than 27,000 cases reported.

Working from home as recommended by the local government, Wang no longer orders daily meals online. “It could be a risk, as the food may contain viruses and contact with the couriers may also cause infection,” she said.

Instead, she orders deliveries of fresh vegetables and raw produce for meals cooked at home by her parents. While this still entails some contact with couriers, Wang said each order lasts her family about four days compared to having to order cooked food for each meal.

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The epidemic doesn’t look to have peaked at all, even while there are about 100x more cases in China. Companies that rely like the food delivery ones on person-to-person contact are going to be praying for a quick end – but cases are being recorded all over the country.
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Apple, just bundle News+ already • 500ish

M.G. Siegler:

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This isn’t rocket science. It’s not any kind of science. It’s common sense. News+ was never going to work as a stand-alone subscription offering from Apple. With the news today of a key departure from the group [the head of Apple’s News+ is reportedly leaving], perhaps the company now sees that. But the writing has been on the wall from day one.

Part of the problem is counterintuitive. If anything, News+ is too good of a deal. There is simply too much content to consume for too low of a price that it’s a weird value equation in most peoples’ heads. The game is actually zero sum. The game is life and the metric is time. None of us have enough of it. But in the era of streaming TV (not to mention music and games and apps and everything else), we really don’t have enough of it.

I may have one magazine or newspaper that I love. Or maybe two or three. And maybe I’m happy to pay for each of those. And it’s awesome that News+ may have those packaged together for one low price, but it also has a basically infinite supply of other content to read. And reading isn’t watching. This isn’t Netflix or Amazon where more is obviously better. I know it may have seemed like it would be, that curation would be the key. But in the order of things, TV trumps magazines and newspapers. You may not like that, I may not like that, but this is the way.

So, what to do?

It’s so obvious that it’s already rumored. Make News+ a part of an Apple bundle. Yes, yes, “Apple Prime” as it were. Flip the script so that News+ isn’t yet another cognitive load on us. Something that may be a good deal but will I really have time for that? To: oh wow, this is included in what I already pay for? Awesome.

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“News” isn’t a task app – it’s not like Uber, which you use to get a ride. You have to tweak it and set it up. How is that different from Music, you ask, where you have to find your favourite artists and make playlists? It’s this: the news is all out there on browsers already, probably autofilling after you type a couple of characters. Music isn’t, so you’ll make the extra effort because it’s unique. News isn’t. M.G is correct: a bundle is the way forward.
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iCloud.com receives native support for Android/iOS mobile web browsers • News Landed

Praveen Nagaraj:

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Apple has silently begun allowing native support for iCloud.com on mobile browsers for both iOS and (most importantly) Android. The new web app update allows four of iCloud.com’s most popular features (Photos, Notes, Reminders, and Find iPhone) to natively work smoothly on mobile web browsers, without having to switch to “desktop site” for a janky version of the app on a verticle screen.

After personally going through some of the features on both iOS and Android, I noticed some issues that doesn’t allow Android to fully support the Notes app. Here is a breakdown of all four features, including what’s working and what’s not working…

…I wish that Apple had added Calendar and Contacts, as I see myself struggling to take out my MacBook for an iCloud contact. There are still some issues to be worked out, particularly with the Notes app. iCloud Photo Library uploading is a major feature, and I hope they fix that soon as well. We obviously cannot expect Pages, Numbers, and Keynote to make it to the mobile web browser. It is actually surprising that Apple natively supported these four apps at all.

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Seems pretty thorough support. Is Apple recognising (finally?) that some families or groups have mixed use? Or is this presaging the arrival of iCloud Folder Sharing, which is going to undercut Dropbox for many people, but might need you to do things on Android?

Or – alternative theory – is it a way to keep people paying for Apple services even though they move to Android (and even Windows) by having content still in the iCloud, um, garden? I can’t believe there’s that many Mac users who are also on Android.
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Google confirms decline in hardware sales: Is Pixel 4 to blame? • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:

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Alphabet didn’t give exact figures for the hardware business or specific devices, but executives repeatedly noted a decline in hardware sales or revenue (h/t: Motley Fool). Nevertheless, the Other Revenues division, which includes hardware, was up by 10% year-on-year (hitting $5.3 billion). This growth was due to YouTube and Play Store earnings.

The company did however briefly note which devices were selling well, saying the new Google Nest Mini and Nest Hub Max were “selling well” over the holiday period. Alphabet also said the Pixel 3a series “sold well” in 2019, but what about the Pixel 4?

“With Pixel 4, we continue to build out our capabilities and are keenly focused on execution, delivering great user experiences and broadening our distribution,” said Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai during the call, not mentioning sales at all.

This suggests that Google’s flagship series didn’t meet early hardware sales expectations. It wouldn’t be a surprise though, as we had just as much criticism as praise in our Pixel 4 review. Between the disappointing battery life, poorly supported face unlock, and paltry amount of base storage, it’s clear Google could’ve done so much better. But the phone also offered a 90Hz OLED screen, excellent picture quality, and stock Android.

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I can’t see that the Pixel 4 will ever do great business, given a static smartphone market in which there’s little reason to change brands (and even less to change platforms; I’ve never bought the stories of “OMG I switched from an iPhone to a Pixel, now everyone’s going to, Apple’s in trouble” as having any relevance).

The other question is where the saturation point for Google Home (aka Nest/Hub) devices is. I know of people who’ve abandoned their Echo devices, finding them insufficiently useful. A two-year still-actively-used-monthly figure would be good to see for these products.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up No.1239: mobile adblocking rockets, EU quizzes Facebook on data, the real risk of website leaks, China’s coronavirus challenge, and more

  1. “Public transport is always more time-consuming than driving”

    Untrue, for 2 reasons:
    1- it’s mechanically untrue in some cases because congestion and the time it takes to find a parking space. I’ve lived in 2 major French cities especially Paris; in quite a few cases taking the metro/underground train cut my travel time in half or more, ie when I was living in the city center and working in La Défense. That can be the case even between cities especially if you go city center to city center. Aix en Provence to Marseille by train is a flat 30min; by car it can take up to 1h30 at peak times.
    2- Time is subjective. Not driving lets you do something else; while driving you can listen to podcasts and that’s it. Driving always takes up a lot more of my time than taking the bus or train. I’ve missed stops because I was engaged in something; while driving I’ve had close calls because I was so bored ^^

  2. Adblocking:
    “Typically a lot of this adblocking is done by people in developing countries ”
    Is there new data ? Last I saw it was fairly the same everywhere.

    “where data is comparatively expensive”
    Probably varies by country, but data cost is not one of the main reasons cited here: digitalinformationworld.com/2019/04/global-ad-blocking-behaviors-infographic.html

    “using mobile browsers such as Opera”
    Firefox is the recommended browser because open-source and addons (uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger are recommended). Browsers especially the “smaller” ones have some blocking, but nowhere near what uBlockO and the EFF offer, and often after shady stuff going on on the side. iOS forbids addons though, so nothing good is available on iOS.

    [Site editor’s note: the highlighted (by me) text is incorrect, and demonstrates a lack of knowledge about improvements made to iOS over the past many years. Ad blockers for Safari were introduced with iOS 9, in 2015. Five years ago. But it’s easier to criticise from a position of low knowledge than to research; Dunning-Kruger in action.]

  3. Pixel: there were/are some reasons to get it, mostly vanishing though
    1- zero crapware. Android OEMs are famous for duplicating way too much of the basic Android and Google tools/apps for no reason. At least with a straight-from Google phone, you avoid that. Not terribly relevant since crapware can be left unused and disabled and now even “uninstalled” (disabled under a new name, but people were traumatized by not being able to remove it).
    2- faster updates, OS and security. 1st-tier OEM are catching up on flagships for security (Samsung does it in 2-3 days, Google every 1st Monday). OS updates are still faster on Pixels, with a few marginal contenders (Essential, random phones from some OEMs to grab headlines…). Most OEMs and cheaper phones are still very slow, weeks if not months even quarters.
    3- longer updates. That’s still true. 4yrs IIRC, which maybe Samsung flagships also do, not sure, the rest is mostly 2, sometimes 3, sometimes 1 or 0.
    4- specific specs/features. Night shots on the 3, but other OEMs have fairly equalized. Also, it’s win some-lose some (SD, jack, FM, IR…)
    5- brand cachet. A lot of potential iOS switchers were looking and Google first. We’re not bestowed ecosystem switching stats any more, let alone OEM switching stats, but I’d guess brand sensitivity is an enduring trait.

    Interestingly, this point to faster and longer updates not being a selling point. Weird when it’s such a talking point, especially in some quarters.

  4. I’m not sure what to think of the Chinese PlayStore.
    On the one hand, in China, it’s very convenient for devs and customers to replace several Chinese stores with a single one: currently, every OEM and dev house has one (IIRC 6 major stores, and 10+ relevant ones); listing+updating your apps is a pain and switching OEMs a bit more friction-y.
    On the other hand, apps rely on sensitive services (data storage, location, message log…) often provided by the store. Even though a single store probably makes devs’ job easier (single services API), it’s probably not a good idea for users outside of China to give away all that data.

    Business-wise, this will probably have the same impact as Amazon’s Fire AppStore: slim to none. The Android app market will remain split 50% PlayStore, 50% Chinese AppStores; plus Epic’s store though if they’re having any success pushing anything but Fortnite, I’m unaware of it.

    Long-term, this may lead to a fully Google-less Android ecosystem being pushed outside of China. Sounds more realistic than the non-Android ecosystem Huawei started off with. What would be funny is if they worked out a deal for Amazon to provide the store and services outside of China. That’d kill the political issues and let Amazon try again at phones, which it is probably itching to do.

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