Date
20 July 2018

MIIT’s app-solutely fabulous smartphone cleanup

I usually have more criticism than praise for China’s bureaucratic telecoms regulator, but I do have to commend the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology for a groundbreaking move that other countries would be wise to follow in the fast-moving smartphone space.

That move will require smartphone makers to list all the apps that come pre-installed on their models, much in the way that food makers list the ingredients in their products.

While the move looks good for consumers and the industry’s overall development, smartphone makers are unlikely to embrace a measure that will tell consumers about all the unwanted and often invasive apps included on their new smartphones.

This latest move is part of the ministry’s broader campaign to clean up China’s unruly smartphone sector, which will surpass the United States this year to become the world’s largest.

The explosive growth has been fueled by a new generation of cheap models costing as little as US$100, many of which are loaded down with useless and even invasive apps that can harass and even spy on users.

Word of the ministry’s latest move also comes as a new survey shows that quality is one of the biggest consumer complaints smartphone users make by domestic manufacturers.

The ministry’s directive will require a much higher degree of disclosure from all smartphone manufacturers in China, which according to reports, will need to publish a list that says what apps come pre-installed on their models. Those lists should be included in service manuals or on company websites for consumer reference. 

I’m encouraged that the ministry is making this requirement, though I think it should require that information be posted on smartphone packaging. That’s how it works for food manufacturers, which makes it easy for consumers to find. By allowing companies to put the information in product manuals and on websites, there’s a good chance that many consumers will never see the message and won’t realize how useless and even harmful some of the pre-installed apps are.

This latest requirement comes just two weeks after media reported that all smartphone makers would need to submit lists of apps that they planned to pre-load on their smartphones for the ministry’s approval. The regulator would then have the right to approve or veto each app.

While some might say these moves look like overly aggressive regulation, I fully support the measures as an important step in creating a healthy environment for longer-term development of this promising industry.

Too often, Chinese companies in emerging industries engage in unscrupulous business practices to quickly gain market share. While many of those practices may technically be legal, they often undermine consumer confidence and lead to market turbulence that doesn’t benefit anyone over the longer term. I suspect that developers of these unwanted apps pay big money to have their software included on new smartphones, often creating nuisances for buyers.

The ministry’s moves come as one-third of respondents to a survey said quality is a problem with smartphones, with about 15 percent of those surveyed saying external product design and difficulties with product use were major issues. The ministry’s new campaign should be a good first step to cleaning up the industry; but I also suspect we will also see a more market-oriented cleanup in the next year or two, as buyers increasingly shun brands with quality problems and unwanted apps.

Bottom line: The ministry’s new disclosure rules on pre-installed smartphone apps look like a good first step toward cleaning up the increasingly unruly sector.

 SK

A commentator on China company news and associate professor in the journalism department of Fudan University in Shanghai. Follow him on his blog at www.youngchinabiz.com.

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