From the site that brings you “The Microsoft Death Watch,” I suppose some of you might wonder just what the Night Owl is pulling? Is that title meant strictly as link or hit bait, or are there some real facts to consider? Well, let me put my cards on the table: Yes, I do see significant signs that Android’s future might be in question, and yes I realize that the majority of the world’s smartphones are powered by Google’s “free” OS. And I’ll also explain why I put “free” in quotes.
There’s an intriguing published report this week, from reporter and commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, in AppleInsider, strongly suggesting that Google is unhappy with Android and is moving to “distance itself” from the platform. Among the key reasons Daniel mentions are the ongoing patent disputes over Android. Hardly a day goes by where you don’t hear about the status of some sort of legal action involving Apple versus an Android licensee. Just when it seems that one of these intellectual property disputes has been settled, yet another appears.
Worse, Android, although it’s intended to be an OS that handset makers can get free, is decidedly not free. Many Android licensees reportedly pay a fee for every unit sold to Microsoft, who claims ownership of certain patents that apply to Android. That Microsoft’s claims aren’t being disputed appears to indicate they are valid. In addition, Apple’s settlement with HTC last year over intellectual property issues reportedly means the latter is paying the former, thus making HTC’s already low profits even lower.
Certainly Samsung is very clearly attempting to remove Android from the conversation. The rollout and most of the marketing materials the company presents about the flagship Galaxy S4 lineup focus on the company’s own enhancements, or bloatware, along with the hardware features. But nary a word about Android. You hardly know Google’s platform even exists unless you pay close attention. Not that Google is helping, since the former Android Marketplace is now renamed Google Play.
Don’t forget that Samsung is the world’s largest maker of wireless handsets. Aside from Google’s own lineup of Nexus smartphones and tablets, which curiously aren’t being assembled by the company’s own Motorola Mobility division, the main source of Android handsets is Samsung, which is doing its level best to deemphasize the platform.
But it’s not just Samsung. Perhaps the largest vendor of Android-powered tablets is Amazon. But the existence of Android is buried so far beneath Amazon’s custom storefront that only power users realize the truth. That’s hardly an advertisement for the success of Android, particularly since Amazon uses a very old version.
Recent developments in Google’s Android division also raise questions. “Mr. Android” himself, Andy Rubin, who is the “father of Android,” was shuffled off to another division and relative obscurity, replaced by Sundar Pichai, who had previously handled the Chrome browser and Chrome OS. Did Rubin do something wrong? Well, as Daniel reminds us in his article, Rubin was regarded as a main instigator for the $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility, in large part because of the hopes that Google would benefit from a large patent portfolio. That hasn’t happened, and the division continues to suffer huge losses.
So what’s the good of Android?
Well, Google launched the platform in the hope of getting tens of millions of eyeballs to see targeted ads, the company’s main source of income. But it appears that Android is not bringing in the big bucks. Yes, there is a large app ecosystem, but visitors to Google Play aren’t nearly as inclined to pay for apps as they are in Apple’s App Store. One reason is the surfeit of nearly useless junk, since Google expends few resources to seriously curate developer submissions.
Over the years, Google has promised to improve security, and to clean up platform fragmentation by working harder to persuade manufacturers and carriers to push critical Android updates to more users. Unfortunately, far too many owners of Android handsets are stuck with older OS releases, and the chances that they will receive over-the-air updates, even to fix critical security problems, are little to none.
The new Chromecast video streaming dongle avoids Android altogether and actually works with both iOS and Android mobile devices, plus Macs and PCs. It’s not part of the Android ecosystem.
So is Daniel’s suggestion that Google is distancing itself from the platform true? Well, it does appear that development has slowed. Only recently has there been any indication of the existence of an Android 4.3, Jelly Bean, which was not even discussed during the recent Google I/O conference for developers. An actual release date for version 5.0, Key Lime Pie, has yet to be announced, though many expect that to happen this fall.
In the end, with intellectual property disputes and a lack of profit hanging over Android, what is Google to do? Well, one possible solution would simply be to spin off the division and make it open source. That way, developers could continue to enhance the platform, if that’s what they want, but Google can wash its hands of the ongoing problems. Mobile handset makers could move to other Linux-based platforms, as Samsung may be doing with a new open source OS project known as Tizen. They might try to build their own proprietary platforms, though that hasn’t gone so well, or perhaps call up Microsoft and hook up with Windows Phone. After all, if these companies are already paying Microsoft licensing fees, might as well get something for the money.