Android Reality Check

I always thought that Android would be sensible to market fragmentation, and I believed it would be their biggest issue. I was wrong.

Sure, Android is used in so many different devices that it can’t be considered a “product” or “platform” by normal people. Each product using Android has to make it more or less on its own, very different from a single vendor platform like Apple’s iOS platform for iPhone/iPad/iPod touch, or RIM with their BlackBerries. There are a lot of different versions in the market, and software development for these platforms is start to become a nightmare – very similar to the situation with Windows on the desktop years ago.

However, a number of other issues for Android have surfaced during the recent months, which in my opinion severely affect the sustainability of the platform from the point of view of the users.

Android is (not) open.

Android is open source and free, so it must be good?! Right?
In 9 out of 10 cases: No.

Most Android customers get exactly what they got before Apple: Mobile devices with a closed OS loaded with bloatware, configured to serve the business models of the carriers. It’s about customer control – Elia nailed it down very well in Fighting the wrong Fight

The key issue in the current situation is that there is no significant distribution channel beside the carriers. So, they control the hand sets and they control how you are supposed to use them. They simply use their leverage in distribution to deliver closed system to their customers, and they do so by modifying the “open” Android so that they can deliver a closed system to their customers.

Normal users will only see software updates to their devices when the provider chooses to do so (and most rarely do). Not only do they close down the system, they install bloatware on their hand sets that you can’t remove. Michael Gartenberg nailed that one nicely with his article Will carriers destroy the Android vision?

In theory, Android is open. In daily life, it is open just for the same guys who have the technical expertise to hack any smartphone.

Android is about (controlling) choice

I’m sure that Google does not like what is happening right now: Carriers exchange the default search engine (i.e. Verizon for Bing), without even giving their customers the choice to use another. Providers try to move to their own app stores, sometimes even replacing Google’s Android Market. China is working on an Android version that does not need *any* Google code anymore. Jason Hiner has a good overview on the state of this “alliance”

Of course, Google tries to prevent choice where it can: If you like to have your devices to access the Android Market, Google reviews your device. If it finds software that it doesn’t like – i.e. a competing localization service like SkyHook – the device is not accepted. “No industry player can restrict or control the innovation of any other”, right? Well, except you’re Google.

Whatever they try, in my opinion  Google is going to loose control over Android rather sooner than later. Are we going to see a Linuxification of the Android market? I think this is quite possible.

The bottom line

Android will generate some great devices for geeks, and millions of mediocre devices which are just build to extend the life of outdated mobile carrier business models. If you consider yourself a geek and can get hold on an uncrippled device, then it can be a good choice.

If you buy an Android as a normal phone user to support “Open Software”, or get out of the “claws of Apple”, then you should at least take a close look what you really get. It might be quite different from what you expect.

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