Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Alphabet Inc.'s Google Play mobile app store may finally find its way into China. 

NetEase Inc., China's second-largest online games provider, approached Google to form a joint venture to launch the app download service in the country, The Information reported, citing people familiar with the discussions.

Talk of a Chinese entry for Google Play has been around for a few years. In 2015, rumors circulated that a firewalled China-specific version of the store would hit the market the next year.

Even in a Google-NetEase incarnation, such a move won't be the decision of either company but the Chinese government, which tightly controls the internet and the flow of information.

Google Play can be accessed now by using VPNs or other circumvention methods, but even then it is severely restricted because Chinese users can't buy apps or content or make in-app purchases through Google Play.

Searching for Growth
Search engine share of Chinese online advertising dollars is falling as other media formats become more popular
Source: iResearch, Bloomberg Gadfly

If and when China does sign off on a move, it won't be for altruistic reasons.

Censorship has long been used in China not only as a tool for information control but for protectionism. It's widely thought that Google left China because it refused to accede to censorship and thus was banned. But in reality, it was also getting beaten handily by local search provider Baidu Inc. thanks to government support.

Prospects for a local version of Google Play are being hailed as a return to China. In reality, it's the lowest rung on the ladder and one unlikely to help the world's second most-valuable tech company access the world's biggest internet market.

In almost every country in the world Google Play is pre-installed on Android phones. Its absence from China has allowed dozens of other Android stores to pop up, with social media giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. and internet-security developer Qihoo 360 Technology Co. dominating the market. 

Chinese Checkers
The Google Play store gets access to consumers in China indirectly through circumvention methods including VPN
Source: TalkingData, NewZoo
Note: Ranking tracks install base, i.e. coverage, of each Android app store in China

Smartphone brands ship devices with other app stores pre-installed -- often for a fee -- with hardware brands like Xiaomi, Huawei and Oppo also getting into the game. Consumers don't need multiple app stores, so if it's not pre-installed it doesn't exist. While teaming up with NetEase may help elevate visibility, there's little chance Google will crack the top three, which is why, from a protectionist perspective, China may be willing to allow entry.

Then there's censorship. Apps and app stores by their very nature are among the most controlled products on the internet. We can be sure that a Google version will not only submit to Chinese censorship but self-censor to comply with whatever terms are imposed on it. This will apply not only to Google apps like YouTube but to third-party developers that use Google Play to distribute their apps.

If those are terms Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is willing to accept, then it'll be a step toward Google With Chinese Characteristics, and a victory for Beijing. But it won't be the Google everyone else knows and investors love.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net