Android’s Looming Image Problem

By now, many people are either firmly pro-iPhone or pro-Android and can explain why in a few, snarky sentences. There are few who want to see both succeed. Many of the well-trafficked tech blogs often descend into pissing matches between mobile platform adherents.

I am somewhere in the middle. I think their joint success is critical to the future of mobile computing and, although they are competing now, they will ultimately serve two different markets. One of the most interesting aspects of this fight is that both represent a distinct paradigm of computing. They represent a choice we were never really given at the beginning of the PC era, a tragedy for which you can thank IBM and Microsoft.

After the iPhone single-handedly created the smartphone market, a lot of people took notice. Google and a handful of handset manufacturers realized that if they did not confront the iPhone and the App Store, Apple might eclipse them all, leaving each company scrapping within its own fiefdom over Apple’s leftovers, much like what happened with the PMP market. Most handset manufacturers could not independently develop a platform for this new class of devices and expect to catch up with Apple. No, they needed something that could grow quickly enough to offset Apple’s huge lead. And they needed an app store. And they needed it all yesterday. Thus the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) and Android were created.

Don’t let the name fool you. The OHA doesn’t care much about openness so much as they care about pumping out Android devices at a dizzying pace. The goal is to smother the iPhone or, at the very least, capture a large enough piece of the pie to remain relevant in spite of it. It isn’t just hardware sales and carrier contracts at stake, but income from the burgeoning apps market and the potentially explosive mobile ads market.

On one hand, we have the iPhone, a platform in which Apple controls the software, the hardware, the apps marketplace, and the distribution channel. All of the pieces can be moved at will, if necessary, to rapidly adapt to changes in the market. And Apple and the iPhone continue to lead the market — not in bean counting, as in the pixel for pixel hardware spec comparisons that most Android fans are so adamant about — but in its ability to rapidly harness and exploit the mobile platform.

In comparison, Android’s OS is controlled mostly by Google under the auspices of its openness (which has been debated), the hardware is controlled by a myriad of competing stakeholders. That competition is great if you like bean counting specs but not so great if you are trying to define the Android brand. Furthermore, the distribution channel is decentralized and is largely controlled by the carriers. Google tried its hand at delivering the Nexus One directly, bypassing carriers using a web-based model, but since the Nexus One was quickly eclipsed by other phones, it appears that this distribution model may not work as well as Google had hoped.

The result of this loose coupling is fragmentation. It is inevitable. Android’s fragmentation is usually references in terms of the various OS flavors (1.5, 1.6, 2.0, etc.) floating around on numerous devices and carriers, but there is a deeper problem. For an example, look at HTC Sense. While it is possible that HTC wasn’t happy with the stock Android UI which some considered to be subpar to the iPhone-set standard, it is much more likely that HTC added a proprietary layer to Android to differentiate itself from its “partners” in the OHA. This is similar to how PC manufacturers like Dell, HP, Sony, and Lenovo “add value” by tacking on to their products proprietary UI components (such as the Dell Dock), special service buttons, and “bonus” software. In a commodity market where every PC pretty much looks the same as the next, it becomes especially important to lure consumers in with exclusive features.

One of the problems with HTC Sense is that it becomes more difficult to distribute OS updates. Owners of HTC devices running Sense may be forced to wait longer than a Nexus One owner for updates. This is particularly problematic for developers, who are being asked to target various incompatible versions of the environment. And it is problematic for carriers who are required to juggle the OS’s various flavors which, when multiplied by the number of unique devices running these variants, becomes expotential in complexity.

Sense presents another problem. It is a representation of how Android’s importance may be relegated to just another spec. Verizon’s Droid was, for a short while, the icon of Android. Then it was the Nexus One. But with new phones rapidly being released, consumers may soon forget exactly what Android is and begin to associate it with something as uninteresting as Windows Mobile was. In other words, Android won’t be a feature so much as an expectation. Like Windows, everyone will know it, but few will love it.

Of course, lack of platform enthusiasm in mainstream consumers is not a death sentence. It will still capture a large segment of the market, but it will be capturing customers who just don’t really care about apps, which means less revenue for developers. Right now the Andorid market continues to grow and that is largely because the platform has promise but if it becomes blasé the market may suffer.

Despite Google’s efforts to contain it, we will continue to see Android’s fragmentation. It is simply too difficult to coordinate so many disparate interests (which is one of the reasons desktop Linux remains the hodgepodge that it is). We will see a flurry of devices, great and small powered by Android in the hopes that this alternative business model can do in sheer volume what Apple has already done by being first to the market.

So here we have two completely different strategies. One is a monolithic approach with Apple at the epicenter. This gives Apple agility and delivers a polished, high-end product. The other approach is a fragmented, semi-ordered chaos from which will emerge everything from gems to the rickety, plastic me-too devices, leaving consumers to sift through the lot. That does not bode well for Android. To avoid this, Android needs an iconic device — much like the Nexus One — that is sold on numerous carriers.

The beauty of this match-up is that both business models have merit (and faults). Despite what angry bloggers may say, neither approach is universally right or wrong. My guess is that both platforms will flourish but that the smartphone market will break among familiar lines. Whereas Apple will likely continue to lead and innovate in a higher end niche market, Android will provide a cheaper, more ubiquitous alternative for those who don’t care much about smartphones but simply like to update their Facebook status while in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

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