There have been some rumblings that Google is starting to realize how varied the landscape of Android devices actually is and may take steps to unify the platform. This current state is of course the direct result of the fact that Android was distributed to OEMs and carriers to customize for the devices they wanted to build and sell. It’s a great model for the aforementioned groups, because it allowed them to add all manner of software to the OS as a point of differentiation beyond the hardware itself. For consumers, it hasn’t worked out as well because companies are less inclined to update older devices with new builds of Android as it comes out because the work and expense involved, it seems, is better spent on churning out new devices to sell. The net result is that up until now, unless you had a Nexus device, you were gambling on what kinds of updates you would see on your handset, and for many people, the house always wins.
So let’s think about the first point in that paragraph: that Google may take steps to unify the platform. We’ve already seen shades of it in the restricted release of the open source Honeycomb code earlier this year. Ice Cream Sandwich is around the corner and has a ton of additional features in it that have been done in OEM/carrier customizations or third party apps. What would those groups do if Google just said one day that the party was over? How would they differentiate? In the face of Google changing the way companies can interact with Android, would hardware differentiation be enough?
It might be, but think about this for a second: given that updates to customized Android builds on varying handsets are not consistent across the board (please don’t argue with me, Android supporters, let’s call it like it is – your phone may have gotten updates, but not every phone does), what single action would allow manufacturers an opportunity to set their devices apart against the constant phone updates and turnover? What could they do that would let them continue to use Android the way they want to if Google changes the game?
Amazon did. The Kindle Fire runs a highly customized variant of Android that Amazon built on a completely different path from Google’s. Now, the first thing that tech people think in this case (myself included) is “well, you’re never getting the updates to the OS that everyone else will get”. Guess what? Not everyone does now, on the existing upgrade path. In fact, I’m fairly certain some phones are being released currently that aren’t running the latest version of the OS, and have no defined upgrade path from the manufacturer. The Kindle Fire is running an older version of Android, sure, but its experience wouldn’t indicate this, because Amazon has changed the entire UI to suit very specific use-case needs.
What’s stopping companies from forking Android? Can’t be money, because they’re spending a ton of it on the largely crappy customizations to the OS itself (forgive me, I’m a fan of standard Android on a functional level, though it leaves a lot to be desired visually). Is it R&D? Do they simply not have the resources to actually continue crafting versions of the operating system in house? If not, wouldn’t it make sense to try and bring those abilities inside at this point? Part of me says it’s fear that they’ll go down a path they can’t come back from, and part of me thinks it’s just laziness. “Google’s doing the heavy lifting; let’s throw a few new widgets on this new unobtanium phone we just made and call it a day.” Then they’ll do it again in sixty days (or less). But the effort involved in building what is essentially your own OS is not lost on me, so I know it’s not something everyone can do.
The business model is selling hardware, I get that too. But part of that hardware – an ever-increasing part – is experience, and that’s where the Fire will excel and where all these other companies continue to fall short. Apple can do it, I think Amazon can too, because they’re not thinking about the same things anymore. It’s a content play for them – get the devices in market and sell through the massive Amazon catalog. But they need to sell hardware to sell the experience. They’re not mutually exclusive. They never have been.
Furthermore, building a business on someone else’s platform is always a tenuous proposition. Ask any Twitter developer who’s had run ins with changing APIs or any iOS developer who’s run afoul of Apple’s often arcane rules. All of these third parties building on top of Android may have some tough decisions ahead of them if Google tightens the leash on what can be done to the OS. Microsoft has a whole mess of restrictions for Windows Phone, and that positioning seems to be doing them at least a small favor in that hardware variations exist, but there’s still a cohesive nature to the WP experience. Google may look at this model, not to mention iOS (where hardware and software are as tightly integrated as they could possibly be) and wish to move in this direction for any number of reasons.
It all makes so much sense! Why wouldn’t a company do this? Control the path of your development future. Build compelling hardware that meshes perfectly with the software. What’s stopping this new horizon from being reached?
If they do, they’re cut off from all the content the Android Market offers. Fork Android, and you can forget Google services. Amazon’s not worried because they have their own playground and don’t need Google’s apps and services. But every other hardware manufacturer does, because without it, all they have is a well-crafted little island that no one in their right mind is going to buy. No apps means no platform, and no platform means no sale. No one is going to splinter off, go up against the iOS App Store and Android Market and even make a dent. I suppose they could try to integrate with the Amazon Appstore, but I have a feeling that may not be a great answer because it’s just trading one content master for another. Through building an Android Market, Google has created a lock-in point for anyone who wants to use Android for anything, because without apps, consumers won’t even consider a device. People give Apple a lot of crap for their policies regarding the App Store, but at least there was no mistaking the intention. Without the Market, every other Android device is toast from the start.
What are we left with, then? An ocean of incessant me-too, bullet-pointed, one-upping phone releases made from varying metals, plastics and glasses. A market strewn with devices, ostensibly orphaned by the manufacturers that released them into the wild, mere months after their introductions. Consumers not sure about which phone they should buy because there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to consumer choice. Too little of it and you feel hemmed in (with the possible exception of the iPhone), too much and you have some heavy buyer’s remorse or just confusion about devices in general. Android held great promise as a new open platform on which many different devices could be built. What it’s become, in spite of itself, is a walled garden of a different kind, albeit with a slightly lower wall, without anyone realizing it. Content is king, everyone knows it, and as long as there isn’t a better channel for it, we’re in for a whole lot of the same.