Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter may have changed the trajectory of social media censorship for now, but without stringent measures in place designed to protect access to the online town square, it may prove to be $44 billion wasted.
Without App Neutrality, Musk’s Twitter could be destroyed overnight – and the backlash so far is a good indicator that radical activists are ready to do anything they can to make sure that happens.
Efforts to establish new left-leaning social media platforms are also already underway, but for as long as Twitter survives, they will fail just as Parler and GETTR did. What these new platforms have that conservative platforms didn’t, however, is the support of Apple and Google. While ongoing anti-trust suits are already looking to limit the power of these companies, the significance of Apple and Google controlling the only two usable mobile operating systems is often overlooked. This dominance could lead to the downfall of Twitter unless legislators take action now.
To understand how Apple or Google could very quickly destroy Twitter, it’s essential to know what mobile operating systems are and the power that Big Tech companies have by keeping users locked in their ecosystems.
Why Mobile Operating Systems Matter
In 2012, the smartphone market looked very different than it does today. While smartphones were commonplace a decade ago, their role in our lives was quite different. Today, most people use their smartphones more than their computers to access websites, use online banking, find and share information and communicate with family and friends. Phones, and the mobile operating systems they run on, are relevant in every aspect of our lives in a way that they were not when there were more mobile operating systems to choose from.
In 2012, Google’s Android made up 23.21 percent of the global mobile OS market share, while Apple’s iOS made up 24.04 percent. BlackBerry’s market share was rapidly declining, at 6.94 percent compared to a peak of 20 percent globally and 50 percent in the United States. Microsoft’s Windows Phone was also struggling at this point, with just 0.35 percent global market share. Nonetheless, Nokia’s Symbian operating system had the most users with a 31.89 percent market share, though most of those users were from developing countries where smartphones were an expensive luxury.
A decade later, Android has a 71.47 percent global market share and Apple’s iOS has 27.88 percent. All other mobile operating systems, of which there are now very few, make up just 0.65 percent of global users.
For many, that’s not a problem. People like their iPhones and everybody else uses an Android device, of which more varieties come from a large yet dwindling number of manufacturers. Apple and Google may defend their duopoly in the mobile operating system market by pointing out that other major technology companies can use their platforms to provide services through their App Store. Microsoft, for example, makes its Office suite available on iPhone and Android. This is a simplistic take; however, that doesn’t consider the vast amount of power that comes with dominating such an important market.
Consider this: Microsoft has long been the biggest and most important software company in the world. Most of the world’s computers use the Microsoft Windows operating system, but even this tech giant couldn’t compete in the mobile operating space. Windows Phone, the operating system after Windows Mobile, had a cult following in the early 2010s but couldn’t keep up with Apple and Google because of how important mobile apps soon became. Microsoft couldn’t keep developers on board because Apple and Google had a more significant market share. As developers focused solely on these two big platforms, Microsoft hemorrhaged users until the Windows Mobile platform was eventually retired.
BlackBerry, the manufacturer of the first true smartphones and some of the most beloved mobile devices ever made, also couldn’t compete. After giving up on its ultra-secure QNX-based mobile operating system in 2015 and later shipping devices loaded with Android, the company stopped manufacturing mobile phones altogether in 2016, and licensing partners who tried to keep the brand alive stopped manufacturing the last BlackBerry devices in 2020. BlackBerry’s problem was exactly the same as Microsoft’s; an inability to get developers to spend time porting Android and iOS apps over to its platform.
Without apps, no mobile operating system can survive, and if giants like Microsoft and BlackBerry can’t make it in this industry, nobody can. This dynamic is so crippling for tech companies trying to carve a path in an industry rapidly shifting to mobile that Microsoft now even ships its own cell phone loaded with Android, not Windows.
This is a problem on its own. Having no real competition in the mobile operating system space is great for Apple and Google and bad for consumers. It also spells trouble for the free and fair sharing of information online by nature of the fact that because Android and Google control the only two widely-used mobile operating systems, the companies can also decide what apps people can and cannot use.
Apple and Google Can Pull the Plug
What happens if the companies that run the only two mobile ecosystems used by everybody in the world decide that Twitter’s content moderation policies are insufficiently biased toward conservatives?
When Apple removed Parler from the App Store in 2021, the platform immediately stopped growing. Despite returning to the Apple App Store later on, albeit, with a stricter content moderation policy, it was never truly able to compete with Twitter. Gab, one of the first alternative, free-speech-focused social media networks, was removed from both the Google and Apple app stores. It was a move that pushed the platform to pivot and double down on the only user base it could rely on – far-right extremists. Today, the platform exists only on internet browsers and as an Android app that can be “sideloaded” by users.
The term “sideloaded” refers to installing an app onto an Android device without using the official app store. It’s a method deployed by some tech-savvy Android users, but it is not something that a vast majority of users know how to do or even understand the purpose of. For most, the Google Play Store is their only source of apps. For Apple users, sideloading is much more difficult. So tricky that anyone looking to use apps not available on the official app stores will use an Android device, not an iPhone, to sideload them.
If Google and Apple cave to the progressive backlash over Musk’s commitment to freedom of speech on one of the most popular social media platforms in the world, then virtually all smartphone users will instantly lose access to the app. Apple and Google control Twitter’s destiny and the ability for most users to access information or communicate online freely.
That’s much more than just an anti-trust issue. It’s a problem for humanity.
Thankfully, though, it’s a problem that can be solved with well-thought-out App Neutrality regulation.
What Is App Neutrality?
App Neutrality is an idea put forward by BlackBerry CEO John Chen in 2015, the same year the company released its first Android-based smartphone in a last-ditch effort to save the brand.
While the concept was born of BlackBerry’s desire to remain in the phone business and ensure the bigger operating systems could not maintain their duopoly, App Neutrality could also have important implications for app access overall.
In an article published on the Inside BlackBerry Blog, Chen described how BlackBerry users were being discriminated against by developers and popular online services that catered only to Apple and Google platforms.
Chen, who was tasked with making BlackBerry profitable, said in the piece that a key part of the company’s turnaround was a “strategy of application and content neutrality,” citing the opening up of the company’s BlackBerry Messenger service to Android users.
“Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them,” Chen also wrote.
“Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users. This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems.”
Chen added that neutrality “must be mandated at the application and content layer” to ensure a “free, open and non-discriminatory internet.”
At the time, Chen was mocked relentlessly by technology news websites. PCWorld branded his idea “profoundly stupid.” TechDirt said it’s “not a thing.” Gizmodo, an ultra-progressive political website as much as it is a tech news website, claimed Chen was trying to “guilt” people into making apps for the BlackBerry10 operating system. Tech pundits laughed at Chen’s call for App Neutrality while also advocating strongly for Net Neutrality.
Chen’s efforts failed and BlackBerry as a mobile operating system and phone company died off, but his idea is more relevant today than ever. His proposal encouraged the introduction of legislation that would require developers to port apps over to other major operating systems. Any such law would compel developers to do more work, which was one of the criticisms of his proposal at the time, but BlackBerry’s own efforts to port Android apps to its BlackBerry10 operating system proved that it can work.
Before BlackBerry introduced Android-based devices, the company partnered with Amazon to include the Amazon App Store on BlackBerry 10 phones. The Amazon App Store features Android applications, which are available natively on the Google Play Store on Android devices, and was designed for use on Amazon’s series of Fire tablet devices. The deal allowed BlackBerry users at the time – and Fire tablet users today – to download Android apps and use them. By including an Android runtime within the BlackBerry10 software, users could install most Android apps on their BlackBerry and have them function just as well as they would on any Android device.
A huge problem, however, was that Google denied BlackBerry and Amazon access to Google Play Services, a proprietary background service introduced in 2012 that is required for some applications to function properly. It meant that some applications worked fine, while other popular apps like Snapchat couldn’t function on BlackBerry devices at all.
In principle, it’s possible for apps developed for Android to be used on other platforms. App Neutrality must, therefore, not only ensure cross-compatibility but also require that no steps are taken by Apple, Google, or developers to prevent them from functioning properly.
Here’s Where Twitter Comes In
It could be possible to prevent Apple and Google from deciding what apps users can and cannot use by applying the idea of App Neutrality to the app stores themselves.
First, under App Neutrality legislation, Apple and Google could be forced to allow competing operating systems to use their app stores and the millions of apps available from them. This would immediately solve the duopoly problem by giving competing mobile operating systems access to the kind of apps that users expect and need today. It could encourage Microsoft to revisit Windows Phone, or even allow for a revival of Palm’s WebOS and BlackBerry’s QNX-based operating system.
Secondly, Apple and Google could be forced to allow competing app stores on their own platforms. Apple already contends that allowing software from outside of its App Store onto iOS devices could put users at risk, and this argument is already playing out in U.S. and European courts. That being said, regulations can be put in place to ensure some basic standards of privacy and security required for app stores to become universally available on multiple mobile operating systems.
If legislators can satisfy users’ security concerns, making app stores available across platforms strips power away from Apple and Google. Should these two Big Tech giants choose to remove Twitter, or any other app from their app store, users could find the app on a competing store and download it without resorting to sideloading.
App Neutrality could not only save Twitter from efforts by Apple and Google to stifle free speech online but would also open up the mobile operating system marketplace to new competitors at a time when the entire world depends on mobile devices.
With analysts predicting a “Red Wave” in this year’s mid-term elections, Elon Musk would be wise to begin talks with Republican legislators about establishing App Neutrality laws.
Jack Buckby is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and reports on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.
UPDATE: This piece has been updated to correct a small numerical error.