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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