What About an Android Death Watch?

March 26th, 2013

As I pointed out in yesterday’s column, Android may be causing huge headaches for Google, since things aren’t quite working in their favor. Take Samsung, who was so busy touting the improved hardware and software features of the Galaxy S4 smartphone that they barely mentioned Android. Consider that some mobile handset makers customize Android in ways that it may make it barely recognizable, and HTC with the One smartphone is yet another offender.

But it’s not just a problem of different themes and bundled apps. Amazon, for example, took Android and buried it beneath a custom interface that shows little if any resemblance to the original. Take a poll of Kindle tablet users, and I wonder how many will realize they own an Android tablet. Sure, the truth is out there, but most people don’t pay attention to our little games of inside baseball.

In Asia, you can buy loads of Android tablets for very little money, but it may be a version of Android that’s very different from the one that Google created that doesn’t even support such services as Google Play. Open source and free licensing combine to make it impossible to have an identifiable brand. With iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone, you can depend on a consistent look and feel to the OS. You know what you’re getting, and what it does, for better or worse.

But Google is not quite in the same business as Apple, BlackBerry or Microsoft. The latter three are in the business of selling hardware and services, although most of Microsoft’s income comes from Windows and Office. Google is mostly selling ad space. Motorola Mobility may be the exception, but it’s still a skeleton of what it was years ago before smartphones emerged triumphant.

Google’s efforts to enforce consistency and reliable update policies have gone nowhere. Google’s other hardware platforms, Google TV and Chrome OS, have not yet shown any indication of potential success. Sure, there are hundreds of millions of Android devices out there, but has Google’s bottom line grown much as a result?

Other than winding down development, it’s not as if killing Android would present a huge problem. Existing hardware licensees could still use the versions they are running. Indeed, most Android hardware out there is saddled with fairly old versions of the OS, so a lack of updates won’t mean a thing. Google could still do critical security and bug fix updates on a maintenance schedule for those who care. In a year or two, smartphones will be running other platforms, or just fork Android and develop their own custom versions. End of story.

Now this doesn’t mean Android is necessarily doomed to failure. It’s fair to say that there are ways for Google to deliver more financial success. Google could, for example, issue new contracts that require modest licensing fees for updated versions, put strict controls on theme changes, and add a requirement to push critical OS updates. Sure, some handset makers may decide it’s time to move elsewhere, but it may just be worth the modest expense to keep it going. At the same time, Google could make a deal with Microsoft over patent rights so individual handset makers won’t have to be concerned over such matters.

In exchange, Google can step up promotion, creating for once a distinct branding for Android that extends beyond a handful of Nexus branded devices. There are obviously distinct positives about Android that can be touted, such as superior multitasking, with the ability to run apps side by side. On a tablet, that can make a huge difference if you want to do real productive work. When it comes to apps, the quantities are sufficient. It’s time to tighten the requirements, and get rid of the junk. Today, iOS is the place to go if a developer wants to put food on the table. Google could certainly curate new app submissions in a more stringent fashion to reduce the chances for malware, and, in general, provide higher quality software for Android users. By making sure more Android gear has the latest software, fragmentation is reduced, making it easier for developers to reach a wider audience.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that Google becomes Apple in building a walled garden. But the lack of controls merely creates the climate for chaos. That Android is being used by handset makers in ways that don’t benefit Google’s bottom line clearly demonstrates that there is a need for a middle ground.

Andy Rubin, “Mr. Android,” the inventor of the OS, has moved elsewhere in the company, thus creating  the climate for huge changes. This doesn’t mean that Android is destined to merge with the Web-based Chrome OS. But the new leadership may make it possible to fix what ails the OS and make it a more powerful contender against iOS.

As you might have seen with a recent high-level defection from iOS to Android — and I’ve been testing a Samsung Galaxy S3 myself for several weeks — the OS has some well-thought features that trump what you get on the iOS. But there are ragged edges and instabilities that, after many upgrades, still haven’t been fixed. That more people defect from Android to iOS than the reverse clearly indicates customer dissatisfaction. Google can do better, assuming the company isn’t just going to let Android die on the vine and move elsewhere some day.

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5 Responses to “What About an Android Death Watch?”

  1. Ted Schroeder says:

    Semi-random thoughts–

    Years ago, I was at a computer swap meet and some guy was trying to sell a woman a computer and told her, in a reassuring and comforting tone, “All it needs is a hard drive.” And, maybe I was making an assumption, but it seemed like the woman had no idea what a hard drive was, what the computer could do without one and how much it might cost to get a hard drive and have it installed.

    A few days ago, I was in a Best Buy and saw a display for Google – I think it was the Pixel Chromebook and it reminded me of the woman at the swap meet. I wondered how many people would buy a Pixel and know what they were getting into and how many might just blindly trust the Google name and maybe be disappointed and blame Google.

    All of which is a bit of a long-winded way of getting around to saying that I don’t think features and Android and fragmenting and forking and updates matter to a large number of people. They want a phone. They want a cheap phone. If they buy a cheap phone and it has Android and it works OK for them, then they’ll probably buy another one once their contract is up. If something doesn’t work right or the way they expect it to, then they may buy an iPhone instead. Maybe because they heard it’s better — maybe because their brother-in-law or cousin has one and he’s the guy in the family that knows about computers and phones. Maybe because the higher price is perceived as a worthwhile cost of avoiding whatever problem they had.

    And all of that reminds me of the report that Apple sold over 47 million iPhones in the last quarter. Making anything (much less something as important to a lot of people as a phone is these days) that can be used by that many people for all kinds of different things is really quite difficult. I guess the same goes for Google, but since their business model is different, it’s hard to know what impact stopping Android would have on their bottom line.

    And so I guess a lot of this boils down to what each individual customer expects, how much they know, how important a phone is to them, who do they trust and what they are willing to pay for. Ironically, with all their data-mining, Google is supposed to have a pretty good handle on this. And yet, they seem a little lost in the dark…

  2. Articles you should read (March 26) …. says:

    […] “What About an Android Death Watch?: As I pointed out in yesterday’s column, Android may be causing huge headaches for Google, since things aren’t quite working in their favor.” — “The Tech Night Owl” (www.technightowl.com) […]

  3. Blad_Rnr says:

    Apple learned a long time ago, if you can’t control your own brand, it loses value quickly. Google is making a poor long-term decision not to control their brand all in the name of getting Google search into handsets. I think it’s a bad one.

  4. Tom says:

    If Google charges even a penny for Android the Apple can sue the pants off them for infringement.

    I think. Isn’t this why Apple went after Samsung?

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