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Is Google the Problem With Android?


My argument this year has been that the only way for the “anti-iPads” to beat Apple’s iOS devices, iPhone and iPad, is with a complete hardware, software, app store, and developer ecosystem. To date, Google’s Android is the best-suited challenger, but it’s faltering.

The good news for Android is growing smartphone market share, as illustrated by the table below, which shows Android picking up 7 market share points between November and February. These numbers provoked lurid and off target press articles such as Android Is Destroying Everyone, Especially RIM — iPhone Dead In Water.

US Smartphone Platform Share February 2011

US Smartphone Platform Share Source: Comshare

 

But the “Android will conquer all, including Apple” riff is just plain wrong. Android is in serious trouble at the moment. Recoverable, but still serious. The questions are whether Google knows Android is in serious trouble and whether the company chooses to get back on track to help its ecosystem partners compete with Apple?

Here are two of the publicly discussed problems that Google is having with Android:

  • The tablet-optimized Android version 3, code-name Honeycomb, appeared last quarter on Motorola’s Xoom, which earned thumbs-up reviews on features but not price. Xoom sales are lousy, the OS is buggy, there are only 15 applications for it, and other Honeycomb tablet ODMs are deferring launch until the problems are sorted out. Post-earthquake cost increases and supply concerns are also playing a role here, but note that Apple is reported to be paying premiums to insure supply of key components to keep the iPad factories rolling. Android in tablets is stalled. “The Xoom’s lesson is that the market will not accept an incomplete product and the vendors are rethinking their offerings in an effort to keep from relearning this costly lesson,” explained pundit colleague Rob Enderle. “They are increasingly frustrated with Google’s continued release of incomplete products, uncertain roadmap and unwillingness to listen to their requests for help and support.”
  • Android ODMs have been modifying the open-source code of Android, especially on smartphones, in order to gain performance and feature advantages. Problem is, applications not prepared for the “enhanced” Android are prone to crash, which leaves frustrated end users and app developer support issues. Instead of rigidly controlling Android like Apple controls the iOS ecosystem, Google’s laissez faire on exactly what is Android is resulting in fragmentation of that OS.

As a result of Google’s less than production-quality rollout of Android Honeycomb, industry product innovation is slowed, demand lowered, and the whole Android tablet ecosystem is waiting with baited breath.

As a result of Google’s deliberate lack of control over Android, Android fragmentation is dimming the prospects for a cohesive, single market for Android apps. Product costs and Android stability are driving some ODMs back to Android 2.2, which was targeted at smartphones. This may allow for lower street prices for Android tablets, but it will exacerbate the fragmentation problem from smartphones into tablets.

Thus, the title of this piece: is Google the problem with Android?

I think every new Google employee is issued a card that reads “Don’t become Microsoft”, a reminder that Microsoft’s dependence on Windows and Office has not been replaced by hot, new growing businesses.

Google’s one-trick pony, of course, is search and related online ads. It is increasingly obvious that the company has literally thousands on engineers working on hundreds of next best things. Google does not want its excellent search products diluted to corporate-level mediocrity by a failure to innovate. So far, there are few contenders for another brass ring. But don’t underestimate the powerful forces within the company undertaking a “let many flowers blossom” campaign focused on inspiring next best things.

Or a rising fear of Facebook. Or the hot-poker sessions with anti-trust lawyers.

Google produces hundreds of software products. Many are in beta — forever. They are never completed. They are free for the asking. Seldom does money change hands. Are they academic-like research projects? That makes Google very unlike the traditional software product company such as Microsoft, which sell a product and gain market share based on, among other things, product stability and support. Have you ever called Google support? You can’t because they don’t provide it : “We’re happy to help you, but we don’t currently provide phone support for our free services.”

The failed Nexus One “buy your phone from Google” program last year is another example of poorly conceived product and business planning.

Google ought to care a lot about encouraging a robust ecosystem around Android. After all, Android is essentially free to the hardware ODMs in return for Google’s ability to control mobile search and ad placement. That’s a multi-billion dollar market.

But the evidence is mounting that Google is not treating Android and its ecosystem as a multi-billion dollar product business.  There is no way that Google can optimize its long-term profit stream from Android if it does not:

  • Put a first-class software product QA process in place;
  • Control minimum hardware specs. (Honeycomb appears to have a minimum hardware spec; it’s just not public);
  • Systematically test apps before putting them in the Android store(s). Root out app malware;
  • Subsidize app developers, especially those with market-leading or technology-leading. The Android app store has quantity but not much quality compared with Apple’s;
  • Control the Android open-source process. Yes, the community will scream. Fine, let them burn their own ROMs on their own phones. But not for commerce. Android needs to be able to work the same across devices of the same generation. For an example of how this is controlled ruthlessly but effectively, see Oracle’s Java;
  • Get on a development schedule and stick to it;
  • Get a roadmap and stick to it;

Unless Google starts treating Android software and its ecosystem with more focus and professionalism, the Android brand is in real risk of becoming tarnished and fit only for low-end China smartphones.

And if Android falters in 2011, there is no other OS yet ready to carry the competitive banner against Apple. HP’s WebOS, Intel’s MeeGo, and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 8 are not ready to stand in for a failed Android.

Wake up, Google! There’s a lot more at stake for the technology industry than letting Android just serve mobile ads for Google’s search business. For Google, Android is its chance to prove it is a trustworthy technology partner — a chance it could see foreclosed for all those hundreds of technology initiatives now being created in the Googleplex.

There’s a lot of tension in board rooms around the industry wondering if Google’s kids will figure out just how important they are to a lot of other fortunes, not just their own. New CEO Larry Page’s moves to turn more over to engineers and not product people is a troubling course in the wrong direction.

 

 

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