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Google’s Android Comes to a Fork in the Road

Earlier this week, I wrote that Google was not treating its smartphone and tablet operating system, Android, with the software product support to ODM’s and customers needed to make Android a strong ecosystem-competitor to Apple’s iOS, iPhone and iPad. That puts the companies that rely on Android in their products between a rock and a hard place.

Getting Started
Today, let’s explore how the industry is likely to work around Google to get where it (thinks) it needs to go.

My going-in premise is that Google does not want to treat Android with the product-level support needed for a variety of reasons, including corporate culture, lack of any real product business focus, and lack of revenue from Android licenses to pay for the support. Thus, with Google not filling the product support vacuum, industry players will step in to defend their investments and markets.

The Smartphone Low End
First, the tablet market-stopping problems are in Android 3.0, code-name Honeycomb. The older 2.x versions for smartphones are stable enough. User problems are primarily with variations and customizations in Android that are not supported by generic Android apps from third parties like the Angry Birds game.

The low end is not going to rally around a common smartphone version of Android. In fact, the free, open source nature of Android makes it particularly attractive for small phone manufacturers who target local markets with low-cost products. Think $100 smartphones in China. With no OS software costs to speak of, product development costs are minimized — a critical economic point in short technology cycles like smartphones. To these ODMs, the idea is to create 90% of the experience with their embedded apps. If the customer downloads apps from the App Store that don’t work, caveat emptor.

My conclusion is that Google is losing the low end of the Android market and has no easy way to get it back. Humpty Dumpty Android fell off the great wall of China.

Google will continue to do some Android innovation on smartphones, especially with large firms like Samsung and HTC, and the software will trickle down to open source. But the low end will just take what’s on the “free software” shelf and productize it, warts and all.

The Tablet High-End
The scenario is simple. Google and its Honeycomb partners are in real trouble. The industry’s first Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom, is dead in the water with only a couple of dozen apps and plagued by software problems. Follow-on products by other manufacturers are widely reported as postponed. The tablet “anti-iPads” lack a viable competitor to Apple right now, this quarter. And Google is making no public pronouncements about “how it’s going to throw all the resources necessary to make this terrible situation right.”

The signs are that Google is looking for a white knight — or hostile takeover — to get the spotlight off these Android problems and out of Google’s active hands. Honeycomb has become a hot potato.

The White Knight is Intel
No one doubts that Intel has serious ambitions in smartphones later and tablets this year with its Atom processor. Intel’s OS horse was MeeGo, an OS partnership with Nokia. Now that Nokia is crumbling and has set its savior blessing on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, MeeGo is a bet with very high odds right now. And Windows Mobile 8 is a 2012 solution to a 2011 problem.

“Intel is actively porting and optimizing Android for Atom”, according to CEO Paul Otellini at the company’s Q1 earnings conference call. Translation: “We are hedging our bets on MeeGo with a big bet on Android”.

“In software engineering, a project fork happens when developers take a legal copy of source code from one software package and start independent development on it, creating a distinct piece of software.” Wikipedia

My call is that the Android end-game results in a software fork of Honeycomb controlled by Intel. Intel, which already has an OS business unit, will not only make Honeycomb run on Atom, but will improve it. Moreover, Intel can support it as a business and charge ODMs appropriately. More costly than free-from-Google? Yes, but “free and not working” is worth nothing.

The tablet industry cost is that Intel is not going to do much more than hand the improvements to Honeycomb back to the open-source community. The ARM microprocessor tablet-ODMs get three Honeycomb choices: do it themselves; use Intel’s Atom-optimized stack; or continue depending on Google.

Intel is not jumping up and down about the responsibility for taking on Android (on top of MeeGo). But there is no other responsible industry home for Android with the resources and experience able to create the hardware, software, and ecosystem that’s needed to mount a serious competition to Apple’s iOS.





One thought on “Google’s Android Comes to a Fork in the Road

  1. I’d be more convinced if Intel had a better record with software over and above base-level enablement. I know they do a lot more software work than they’re generally given credit for, but that’s really because they haven’t had much success with software that’s end-user facing in any way.

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