First, A Brief Introduction...
If you've been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the tech world for the past year or two, you're probably well aware that Android has more or less taken over the smartphone scene. Way back in June of 2010, Google revealed that 160,000 Android devices were being activated per day - at the time, that was more than double the combined total of iPhone, Mac, and iPad activations. According to comScore, Android had already conquered 28.7% of the market in December of 2010. In March of 2011 - just a few short months later - comScore's numbers showed market share had leapt to 34.7%.
Fast forward a year and a half to February 2012, and activations were over 850,000 per day. Andy Rubin, Google's head of Android, also revealed that over 300 million Android devices had been activated, and there were over 450,000 apps in the Play Store. And comScore's numbers for March of 2012 showed that an absolutely astonishing 51% of smartphones ran Android - a difference of 16.3% year-over-year.
But enough self-capitulation; I've got my flame suit on and I'm ready for the nerd rage that's sure to ensue from the following post. Because I see a lot of problems with Android. Problems that could ultimately lead to its decline.
Let me clarify that statement - and please, read this before you head down to the comments to berate me. I'm not talking about the death or demise of Android, per se. In fact, I foresee Android continuing to sell by the literal boatload for years to come, so when I say decline, understand that I'm talking about market share in a market that's growing at an incredible pace. Do I see the end coming? Maybe - but it would be years down the road. This post is not in the sensationalist style of a crazy homeless man; the end is not nigh.
Perhaps most importantly, I'll be capping off the post on a positive note - although I see plenty of bad history and issues that will plague our beloved OS for some time, I also see signs that despite all its flaws, Android has the potential to continue its dominance for years to come.
If Google Were A Car, It Would Be A Camaro
Pictured: Google. Image source.
When it comes to being a fast-moving company, Google is a lot like an American muscle car: fast in a straight line and respectable stopping distance, but throw a few turns into the track and you're going to have a bad time. The company tends to come flying out of the gate with new products, but they're always half-assed. Disagree? Name one recent Google service that came out without serious shortcomings or flaws. I challenge you.
I don't think you can. Look at all the company's failed social experiments; even Google+ is a ghost town to all but the technophiles (though it remains my favorite social network by far). Google Wallet has been used by, at best, a fraction of a percent of the population, and uptake by manufacturers and carriers is abysmal. The Play Store's music and movie offerings launched without all the major players on board and still remain subpar. There are dozens of smaller services that simply fell by the wayside because they never even made a splash to begin with.
And that's without even touching the sore subject of Android. Honeycomb was, by the company's own admission, a rushed and weak approach to tablets, and even over a year after the first Android tablets were released, quality tablet-optimized apps are few and far between. Fragmentation runs rampant, as much a nightmare for consumers as for manufacturers and carriers. It took years - until Android 4.0 (3 years) if we're being honest, or Android 2.3 (2 years) if you want to be a dishonest fanboy - for the OS to reach some sort of respectable level of consistency and casual usability; either length of time is unacceptable. And oh, God, the sales disappointment that was Google TV, despite having some potential...
The App section of the Play Store has improved greatly over the years, sure. It went through a few UI makeovers, though it's still far from perfect on that front. But there are much deeper issues that haven't been addressed, both from the standpoint of developers and of customers. Malware is a serious threat on a nearly daily basis, a problem exacerbated by Android's popularity, as owners are increasingly likely to be tech-illiterate. The refund window is still just 15 minutes, a pitifully short time to find any major issues with an app. Think about it: would you trust a review of a game or app after the reviewer had spent just 15 minutes with it? Certainly not, so why would that amount of time be enough to decide if it's a worthwhile purchase?
For developers, Android can be a nightmare. They constantly have to fight an uphill battle, thanks to the huge number of existing apps (it's hard to get noticed), a customer base that's unforgiving and expects most apps to be free, and piracy that runs rampant. Play Store issues aside, the wide variety of devices that makes Android so beautiful is also one of the biggest curses. Some devices have tiny screens with resolutions like 320x480, run a single-core TI CPU at 800MHz, and have 4 capacitive buttons. Another device might pack a 4.7" screen at 720x1280, with a quad-core NVIDIA CPU clocked at 1.5GHz and only 3 capacitive buttons. And yet another may be a 10.1" tablet with a resolution of 1920x1200 and have no capacitive buttons at all. That's all before you even factor in that each of these devices may be running a different version of Android and manufacturer customizations... or worse still, be hacked and modified by the owner, running some Frankenstein-like combination of recovery, kernel, drivers, and ROM.
A lot of these issues are being partially addressed by Google, but very slowly and occasionally with ill effect. As alluded to above, complaints about the UI and usability of the Play Store have been addressed in various revisions, but the core issues remain. It took the company a few years, but they're starting to pick up their marketing game, and now advertise their various products and services, including Android. Presentations, while still fairly meh, are better than they were in the past, and will likely continue to improve. In short: as I said, a Camaro isn't good at tight turns, and neither is Google. Instead, they're making minor course corrections and zooming off in a better (if not completely on target) direction.
Android: The Sort Of "Free" That Comes With A Price Tag
One of Android's biggest selling points for manufacturers is that it's free - Google charges precisely nil for Android itself. Of course, for manufactures, there are two resulting benefits. First, they aren't responsible for developing and maintaining the code - merely for getting that code onto their devices. Second, they have access to the massive Play Store, a crucial piece of the smartphone puzzle.
But both benefits, as it turns out, come with a price tag. Getting Android to work on the bevy of devices offered by most manufacturers costs a massive amount of resources - in fact, it's one of the largest problems suffered by HTC and its huge lineup of extremely similar, but not-quite-the-same devices. The code has to be tweaked for each one, and each has to be individually quality tested. From there, it has to be rolled out to carriers for them to make their own customizations and then conduct their own QA, and only then does it become available to the end user - all on a phone-by-phone basis. It's for that exact reason that the company went back to the drawing board and streamlined their device lineup, coming away with the impressive three-pronged One series of devices. (This is, of course, excluding the additional manufacturing and hardware support costs for each minor variation.)
The absolutely mental state of patents and litigation makes the situation exponentially uglier. Trying to even comprehensively write about all the lawsuits flying around the Android world is, by my calculations, literally impossible for any one person to do. If we'd redirected the sheer amount of resources dumped into protecting bogus patents rather than innovating, we probably could have figured out cold fusion by now. And colonized Mars.
This simple graph explains it all, I think:
Oh, I'm sorry, did I say "simple?" I meant goddamn ridiculous. The litigation costs alone are huge, and the implications therein doubly so. If the companies in a suit don't reach a licensing agreement, things can get so ugly that shipments of an entire line of devices can be halted. If they do reach a licensing agreement, the costs add up to just as much. For example, Samsung pays between $10 and $15 to Microsoft alone for every Android device it sells. And that's just the tip of the iceberg - the CEOs of Samsung and Apple met to discuss possibly settling, which further adds cost to each device. With all the lawsuits currently going on, it's likely there will be further payments from the Android camps, either in the form of licenses or settlements.
In sum, the costs of producing and supporting an Android device are fairly substantial, resulting in a huge bite out of profits. In 4Q11, Apple had 8.8% of total phone (all phones, not just smartphones) market share, yet made 73% of profits. Samsung came in second at 23.5% of the market and just 26% of profits, while HTC pulled a mere 1% of profits.
Nice Guys Finish Last
One of the most beautiful aspects of Android is the sheer customizability. You can literally change almost anything about the OS that you don't like, doubly so if you have the technical know-how. And yet that's something of an Achilles heel for Google; while it undoubtedly contributes to the popularity both among manufacturers and consumers, it also allows other companies to take Android, strip away the Google-ness, and come away with a free, well supported OS that they have to pay absolutely nothing for.
The most notable example is the Kindle Fire. While sales of Android tablets have been mediocre at best, the one bright point has been the Kindle Fire, which constituted 16.8% of tablet shipments in 4Q11 and 4% in 1Q12, but which also runs a heavily diluted version of Android that doesn't use Google services (including the Play Store). Instead, it sports Amazon's proprietary app, music, and movie services. As a result, it provides little revenue back to papa Goog. Nor does it profit the company from a marketing standpoint, since most consumers don't realize it's based on Android to begin with - rather, they see it as an Amazon product from top to bottom (which, quite frankly, it almost entirely is, aside from that Android core tucked way deep down in there).
But Amazon's hit-it-and-quit-it use of Android is nothing compared to the potential damage caused by China. Carriers and manufacturers there are doing just the same - taking the core and then slapping their own revenue streams on top, leaving nothing behind to help Google recoup costs.
A few lost revenue streams probably aren't going to stop Google from developing Android, at least for the time being. The company recognizes that limited or lost revenue in one stream isn't a big deal, because frequently it pays off in other areas. Still, in this case, there are likely no real payoffs anywhere, and while that's not a problem now, it may be in the long run.
Competition At Its Finest
It's no secret that the smartphone OS world is a chaotic whirlpool of competition. You've got the old companies violently trying to claw their way back up (e.g. Nokia and RIM), the steam-engine juggernaut that is Microsoft, the front-runner Apple, and up-and-comers like Tizen, all competing with our
superior beloved Android.
Many are already counting Nokia and RIM out of the fight, but people (and companies) fight hardest when it's for survival - it's much too late to count them out now, and it looks like they plan to come out swinging. Nokia's partnership with Microsoft has resulted in Nokia's first competitive flagship in ages, the Lumia 900, which has been so well received that even Siri called it the "best smartphone ever." And RIM promises huge changes on the horizon with the catchingly named BlackBerry OS 10, though the company may have already lost too much steam. And then there's the possible of competition on the horizon, such as from the very similar Tizen - a Linux-based OS backed by Juggernauts Samsung and Intel, as well as The Linux Foundation and Sprint.
The most notable competition, really, comes from within. As mentioned above, Samsung pays Microsoft $10 to $15 for every Android device sold. Care to guess how much it costs for a Windows Phone 7 license? $15. Factor in other licensing costs - such as to Apple or other IP
trolls owners, and what are likely much lower support costs (WP7 phones are virtually identical, so they require little customization on a device-by-device basis) - and the OS starts to look like more and more of a bargain. That's leaving out the massive marketing budget Microsoft devotes to WP7, and the strong potential exhibited by Windows 8 (and WP8).
Google's (And Android's) Saving Grace: Lots Of Horsepower
Remember how I complained that Google just zooms off in a direction without really taking the time to think it through first? Most of the time, jumping head-first with your eyes closed is a bad idea. But sometimes, that split-second you saved by not hesitating can be enough to give you an edge - a sort of creed that Google has essentially always operated by. There are a few notable examples of when that pays off, but let me explain why those successes can be so important.
The beauty of Google products and services is that they're all integrated with each other. That's key here, because people who use and enjoy one product by a company are likely to keep things with the same provider whenever possible - and Google is good at brand loyalty. Think about how many Google products people use on a regular basis, and how loyal they are to them - Search, Maps and Navigation, GMail, YouTube, Translate, Docs, Calendar.... the list goes on and on, and the best part is, they will go out of their way (to some extent, anyway) to get to Google services over competitors services. And once they're already part of that ecosystem, it makes sense to stay within it.
This integration lends excitement to some of the amazing, forward-thinking projects that Google is working on. Project Glass, for instance, has the potential to be revolutionary, and the video indicates there's incredibly tight integration with Android (if it doesn't run Android, that is - a strong possibility), and with nearly all of Google's other services. Google's driverless car is just as amazing, and the tech is now legal in Nevada.
Google's successful services never really fade away - they simply continue to adapt, kept alive and well by that tight integration. Android has clearly been a resounding success, and it's likely that both of the other projects listed - and a fair chunk of the other cutting-edge tech the company is working on - will catch on as well. As long as Google makes sure that new services continue to complement the old, it's unlikely the OS will fail any time soon.