Watching Google’s rollout of Android to date, including this week’s announcements about the Google-branded, HTC-built Nexus One phone, I am left with two conflicting thoughts.
The first is that everyone I talk to within Google is supremely confident that the data they are looking at suggests that they are poised to win in the market.
The second is that I am confused. Relative to the ‘battle’ and ‘war’ analogy, what is the battle that Google is fighting, and what is the war that they expect to win?
After all, at this stage Android is not in the same league to WIN the potential iPhone buyer because, relative to iPhone, Android lacks on hardware design, developer tools, media libraries, apps momentum, and marketplace functionality.
Yet, based upon RIM’s last quarter earnings report, it’s not as though Android is taking market share from the Blackberry, either.
My best guess is that Google is REALLY going after the Nokia and Symbian ecosystem, which is fine and logical, as it represents a comparable structure in supporting a broad variety of device form-factors and a multi-carrier approach. Plus, it offers (relatively) easy pickings, as Nokia/Symbian has a dispirited developer base, making it low-hanging fruit.
The only paradox is that to win that audience you can’t be competing with the handset guys (i.e., Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG) in either hard or soft form – i.e., by anointing a preferred device/partner or formally branding and marketing a Google device.
Why? Because a successful platform play demands clear delineation points between the areas where the platform creator is looking to the ecosystem to fill the gap (and, thus the platform provider won’t compete with them); where they consider something proprietary to themselves, and thus won’t allow a third-party to augment/swap out; and where it’s more akin to ‘co-opetition’ (the platform creator will cooperate, but reserves the right to compete as well).
When You See the Fork in the Road, Take It
In Google’s case, they have positioned themselves as the more open alternative to iPhone, and have been very vocal from the get-go (i.e., during the two years that they have been courting handset makers) that they are not getting into the hardware game.
In fact, just two months ago, Andy Rubin, VP of Engineering for Android at Google, scoffed at the notion that Google would “compete with its customers” by releasing its own phone.
“We’re not making hardware,” Rubin said. “We’re enabling other people to build hardware.”
Yet here we are, and it appears that Google is indeed materially changing the rules of the game by rolling out a Google-branded phone.
History suggests that when ecosystem partners conclude that the platform creator is competing with its own constituency or using built-in advantages unfairly, they will become less loyal and less dedicated to the platform.
In the Android market, the most likely way this manifests is handset makers more freely making product decisions that are at odds with the ‘greater good’ of a unified Android platform, thus accelerating the rate of Android platform fragmentation.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that Apple has been a saint in how they’ve managed their relationships with developers. They haven’t, and have been rightfully pilloried for their deafening silence and sometimes-capricious handling of the App Store approval process (in terms of their interaction with third-party developers).
The difference is that with Apple, the ecosystem is making real money, the universality of iPhone/iPod Touch App and Media distribution is compelling, and the monetization workflow is straightforward and just works, so Apple developers cope and deal. Besides, as a developer, you always prefer a unified platform to a more heterogeneous one, right?
Hence, the argument here is that Google watched the rate that the iPhone Platform is evolving and how rapidly consumer and developer mindshare continues to grow, and concluded that ‘staying the course’ was unpalatable, and decided to do something dramatic about it.
In other words, this move was dictated by what Apple is making happen in the market rather than any pure failing of Android. Nonetheless, it’s a telling statement on what Google now believes is the quickest way to get the best possible Android phone out, a statement they appear willing to make even if it results in collateral damage to the Android ecosystem.
Call me a naysayer, as it’s certainly contrary to conventional wisdom, but I believe that this move is an indication that Google has misread the market, and now faces a choice between a fragmented Android marketplace or abandoning the core precepts of Android (as an open, hardware vendor-neutral software platform play) in order to go toe-to-toe with Apple in areas that, I would note, Google hasn’t proven to be strong at; namely, hardware design, user experience, and developer tools.
Framing this dilemma, MG Siegler of TechCrunch nicely captures one bit of fallout from the imminent Nexus One launch in his excellent piece, ‘With Nexus One, Is Google Eating Its Own Dogfood or Its Own Children?‘:
Google is unveiling the Nexus One just two months (nearly to the day) after the Verizon Droid was released. The Droid, of course, was seen as the Android platform’s Messiah by some, and the one phone that could maybe hold a candle to the iPhone. Sales have been good, and the general consensus is that the phone is a winner. But now, just two months later, we have a new Android phone that by just about every account is better than it. In fact, the only real upsides for the Droid over the Nexus One is that it runs on Verizon’s network, and that it has a physical keyboard. The Verizon point is certainly a fair one – there’s a reason why everyone is clamoring for a Verizon iPhone. But the physical keyboard argument seems moot, as the consensus is that the Droid keyboard is a pretty poor one.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty annoyed if I just shelled out my money for a Droid, and locked myself into a 2-year contract (even one with Verizon). It reminds me of when Apple first unveiled the iPhone for $599 then slashed the price just a few months later, leaving all the early-adopters bitter. Apple eventually gave a partial rebate to those buyers, but it still was a curious move. And Google’s is arguably worse here, as it’s not just about the money, but about the unveiling of a superior piece of hardware so quickly after it put a lot of its own marketing muscle behind the Droid, trying to convince customers that it was the Android phone to buy.
Mind you, this is the same company whose credo is “Do No Evil,” and just a week ago delivered a somewhat sanctimonious, self-serving and much-derided manifesto on the Google definition of openness. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber commentary was by far the richest: proclaiming, “It’s the biggest pile of horseshit I’ve ever seen from Google.”
Fair or unfair, when you emblazon yourself as being more open and less evil than everyone else, as Google has, you put a bit of a target on your back.
Somewhat paradoxically, Apple gets a free pass here, because with Apple, product positioning is all about the products and the user experience, and not about morals and openness.
Everything Old is New Again
The prevailing meme in assessing the battle between Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone is that it’s a redux of Microsoft Windows v. Apple Macintosh, with the premise being that the company with the broadest base of hardware OEM support will inevitably outflank and usurp the market position of the integrated and more proprietary hardware, software solution provider (read: Apple then and Apple now).
That chapter has yet to be written but I would submit that there is another chapter from tech history that bears re-reading: Novell v. Microsoft.
In 1994, Microsoft was rapidly moving into the driver’s seat as the de facto leader of desktop/personal computing, yet many forget how utterly dominant Novell was.
In fact, at one point, 90% of the market for PC-based servers was under its control via its NetWare Network Operating System and surrounding ecosystem of hardware, software, integration and education/training partners.
At that point in time, it was not apocryphal to wonder whether the Network was poised to swallow up the Desktop, or vice versa, in much the same way we ruminate today on whether ‘The Cloud’ will swallow up Edge-Based computing.
But then something interesting happened. Novell’s Ray Noorda, believing that its strategic position gave it a secure foothold from which to establish a beachhead in the desktop environment, opted to take Novell head-on into Microsoft’s Office stronghold by rolling out a product suite that included WordPerfect and Quattro Pro, a one-time Excel competitor that had been acquired by Novell from Borland.
When the dust settled, not only had Novell lost the desktop battle badly, but in the process of focusing its forces to fight Microsoft on its home turf, Novell missed the disruptive power of the TCP/IP-based Internet (NetWare was built on a protocol stack known as IPX/SPX), and now, relatively speaking, nobody uses NetWare anymore.
Netting it out: rather than seeing this as a Microsoft v. Apple analog, maybe Google should view this as a Microsoft v. Novell analog, with Google sitting in the Novell position. Either way, the Mobile Wars are shaping up as the juiciest industry battle in years.