If for no other reason than the “Anyone but Apple” crowd NEEDS an alternative, there is an “inevitability” meme associated with Google’s Android initiative.
After all, Google is formidable, has a strong brand, and their (relative) openness is the “zig” to Apple’s proprietary “zag.” And of course, mobile is strategic to Google’s future, so they can be expected to compete vigorously for market and mind share (via Android) over the long haul.
But, do those ingredients combine into a recipe that makes their success in the market inevitable? Over a year after Android’s launch, I have to say that the jury is still out.
Why do I say this? Most basically because reconciling the fragmentation challenge of supporting a heterogeneous software platform running on top of divergent hardware form factors with the proprietary aspirations of handset makers, software developers and carriers is far harder to balance than most recognize.
But, you say, can’t we look to the PC as a historical guide? Isn’t this merely Windows vs. the Mac for the Mobile Broadband Era? Not necessarily. Unlike the PC, which was fundamentally a homogenization play (i.e., hardware and software was fairly consistent from vendor to vendor), mobile is heterogeneous in terms of its support for hardware, software, and service layer diversity, a trend that Android, if anything, seeks to accelerate.
Moreover, unlike the PC, where “good enough” was the bar required to seize the market, the mobile consumer expects seamless interaction and robust performance across multiple modalities, including voice, search, geo-navigation, communications, gaming, and social networking.
Anchoring all of this is a fundamental truth that for most consumers, their mobile device of choice is a lifestyle decision, a personal, ever-present extension of themselves that is resident in a way that never existed before with the PC–a value proposition that Apple has completely run with on iPhone (and iPod before that).
Fundamentally, though, mobile is a platform play, a game that is largely won by securing the hearts and minds of developers, and for them, the expectation bar is now set pretty high, owing to the success of iPhone across so many domains, including installed base (and guaranteed reach into that base), operating margins, developer ecosystem, application uptake, functioning marketplace, and the ability to target both carrier-based and tariff-free market segments (via iPhone & iPod Touch).
Simply put, developers will default to developing on platforms that:
1. Gain them a readily addressable audience
2. Allow them to make money
3 They enjoy personally using, as the best solutions often result from an “unscratched itch”
This is the bar that Android must satisfy to become a durable player in the market, and as I will lay out, they have a long way to go.
Inevitability: Just around the Corner?
When Verizon announced Motorola’s Droid (with behind the scenes high-touch support by Google), the conventional wisdom was that this device was the closest proxy to being a viable competitor to iPhone, without actually being a serious threat.
In other words, a good, reasonably inspired, and largely caveat-free handset, but still a generation or two away from being Insanely Great.
Well, the first wave of market feedback is in, and the data, while encouraging, is clearly mixed. On the one hand, it looks likely that Droid will hit 1M units sold by year’s end, which is great for a first-generation handset.
In terms of the larger market prospects for Android, one can also safely assume that this is the tip of the iceberg, and that another 5-6 increasingly rock-solid handsets are germinating in the ground, ready to raise the bar still further.
At the same time, this very premise–device diversity–presents a bit of a conundrum. Samsung couldn’t care one whit about Motorola’s success. Quite the opposite. So when they come out with their own rockin’ Android handset, they should create their own distinct hardware form factor, and their own social service layer (it’s not going to be Motorola’s MotoBlur).
Who knows, they may offer up their own proprietary middleware to enable Samsung-brewed apps to play particularly well together, so as to incent developers to take advantage of the native features of Samsung devices. This is all good, right? One of the benefits of an open platform, right?
Now, as a developer, do you develop different versions of your software to take advantage of the cool features of each of these different devices (and the lifecycle of supporting same)? Do you focus on just the device that pushes the highest volume (and release more apps specific to that device)? Or, do you pursue a lowest common denominator that strives for uniformity across all form factors?
It’s the consummate highest common divisor v. lowest common denominator forking decision, and the complexity of making such a strategic decision is muddied further by rumors that Google is going to come out with an official Google Phone that features the “Real Android,” a move that, if true, could really upset the apple cart (no pun intended) with handset makers and carriers.
Post-Droid Launch: The Android Buzz Kill
It was inevitable, but with hype comes disappointment, and now that the first reports are in (from industry types on Droid – HERE, HERE, HERE), the crowd is railing on everything from an under-baked software platform to hardware problems (such as a useless physical keyboard, disappointing camera performance, and battery doors perpetually falling off; the latter of which must be serious Schadenfreude for iPhone owners, who’ve endured rants about the idiocy of Apple not allowing consumers to replace their own batteries — owing to the absence of a battery door on the iPhone and iPod Touch).
Oh, and developers don’t seem too happy about the way Android’s version of the App Store model–the Android Market–works for them. Why? For starters, unlike the global reach into 50M+ iPhone/iPod Touch devices that iPhone developers can plan their world around, the Android Ecosystem works differently, with some handsets and some carriers having varying levels of app catalog completeness, not to mention, workflows that make it difficult to discover new apps and a payment process that is, well, Byzantine.
Plus, the different form factors are already exacting a tweak-and-debug “tax” to gain the leverage of multi-handset support, a lifecycle that only figures to get more complex going forward.
Perhaps all of this wouldn’t matter if developers were seeing the kind of uptake (in downloads and dollars) that has been seen on the iPhone Platform, but so far, that is not happening, prompting mobile gaming app developer Gameloft to cut back its investment in Android, noting (according to Gameloft finance director Alexandre de Rochefort) weaknesses in Android’s application store design.
“It is not as neatly done as on the iPhone. Google has not been very good to entice customers to actually buy products. On Android nobody is making significant revenue,” Rochefort said.
In a word, “Ouch.” All of this just goes to underscore how much Apple has gotten right, and that fact that it is non-trivial for others to emulate.
Is the Android Table Missing a Leg?
Imagine a table with four legs. In the mobile universe, the table’s legs are:
1. Great handset functionality, horsepower and design
2. Thriving software developer ecosystem
3. Carrier coverage, reliability and performance
4. Media player and marketplace
So how does Android sit in each of these four categories today? Relative to the actual handset itself, if Droid represents the best bones to date upon which a second and third generation device will be built, it should be clear that Apple’s design prowess remains a serious competitive advantage. That said, a score of device designs are just around the corner, so this is an area where evolution should be fairly rapid, although capturing market share from Apple is hardly a given.
As to the developer ecosystem’s health, the simple truth is that Android + Android Market remains 12-18 months behind App Store and the iPhone Platform. Whether developers jump on the bandwagon early or wait until the platform matures is very much up in the air. In fact, early warning signs suggest that certain developers, including the aforementioned Gameloft, are measuring their investments in Android for the time being. The inevitability of the ecosystem is decidedly a “not yet” score.
It is the area of Carrier coverage that Android has its strongest leg. Personally, the ONLY reason that I remain a Blackberry Tour owner is that I am a loyal Verizon customer, and AT&T’s reputation is tarnished, to say the least. Carrier diversity across the Android Ecosystem is one area that gives consumers the ability to pick and choose the combination of price, performance, and features that matters most to them.
However, it is in the area of Media Player and Marketplace that the Android table starts looking like it is missing a leg. Sure, there are a number of iTunes alternatives that work with the Android (doubleTwist is probably the best. Google should buy them).
But, I would argue that media is so endemic to what people “hire” their mobile devices to do for them that the end-to-end media sandbox shouldn’t be loosely integrated into the device. It should be core to the platform.
This implies an iTunes-like client application plus an integrated media player that ties in seamlessly with the media marketplace functions.
I know that what I am about to say should be obvious, but many forget that nested Russian doll-style into the iPhone is an iPod; you know, the media player that should have been outflanked by “someone” long ago, but continues its dominance unabated.
Plus, think how the iPod Media Player + iTunes Client & Media Marketplace acts as foundation/feeder to the overall user engagement and monetization workflow that consumers happily default into with iPhone (and iPod Touch). It’s pretty damn potent, and just works, a bookend to the complaints about the clunkiness of Android Market. Android needs a better strategy here.
Netting it out: So much of the Google DNA is about loose coupling and ‘good enough,’ which doesn’t pass the sniff test when you have experienced best of breed, tight integration and of course, a deep library of media and apps with iPhone. As such, Android has a longer way to go to realize its “inevitability” premise than it might appear at first blush.
Also, while all of these problems are solvable, Google has neither shown that they have the wherewithal to succeed where others have failed (think: Microsoft, Palm, Symbian), nor is it like Apple is sitting on their hands. The folks in Cupertino, after all, have proven repeatedly that they can execute with laser-like focus–a truth which shows in the product, the user experience, market share, momentum, and the sexy margins that go with having hit the ball out of the park.