Android Market is Probably Not Coming to China Anytime Soon

Contradicting a report in The Wall Street Journal, Android Market is probably not coming to China anytime soon, a source familiar with the matter said.

The Journal reported last week that a major goal for Google in China is to bring Android Market to the country and that the company is pursuing partnerships with local carriers to offer the app store on their phones. But a source familiar with the discussions said that such a move is still in the “exploratory” phase and isn’t as far along as the Journal suggests. “It’s not really happening,” they added.

The problem — not surprisingly — is the regulatory environment.

When I spent a month in China last fall, the more prominent platforms that operate in China like Tencent told me that they needed to have a strict app review process to comply with government censors. That’s one of the reasons why Tencent told me it needed to take more than the commonplace 30 percent revenue share that Apple’s iOS, Facebook and Android take from developers on their platforms.

This just isn’t compatible with the current review process in the Android app store, where developers can put up apps at will. They’re taken down later if they are found to have violated terms after the fact. In contrast, both Apple and Tencent review apps before they’re even available. In fact, Tencent launched its own Android app platform about three months ago.

If Google were to operate Android Market in China, it would need to substantially change its review process for just that country — a decision which could be seen as hypocritical considering how the company chose to end censorship of search results two years ago.

Regulation around smartphone apps is also still quite immature in China, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see it evolve in the way that video game regulation and censorship has. Companies that want to operate online games in China need to have several licenses from the Ministry of Culture and other agencies. Plus the censors can be touchy about seemingly innocuous things. They banned time travel in television dramas last April. Then when EA PopCap tried to do a bus advertising campaign for its hit Plants vs. Zombies over the summer, they told us they needed to minimize the word “Zombies” in ad copy because it was considered too scary.

It’s not really clear what sort of role the app store or platform would play in negotiating these issues on behalf of developers. In any case, Google’s absence has been a boon for the dozens of alternative Android app stores which have flourished in its place.