As of the latest comScore report, Google’s Android operating system accounts for nearly half of all devices now in use.
So it’s strange to think of Android being in trouble. New Android phone activations are rising. Google released its most sophisticated and powerful version of the OS yet.
But the Android ecosystem is in deep trouble. Here’s why — and here’s what I think Google should do about it.
To date, most of the discussion about the problems in the Android ecosystem have revolved around the F Word. Fragmentation. That refers to the large number of Android O/S versions in consumer use, as well as to the great disparity in the features and capabilities of the devices that run them.
Just look at the Amazon Kindle Fire to see how far afield Android is going.
But there’s a larger problem looming for Android. And it has to do with Google’s ideals for its open system.
Photo credit: Gina Smith for aNewDomain.net
My own business is built around helping companies leverage both free and commercial open-source software, including Apache’s OFBiz and Magento eCommerce.
So I am a huge proponent of the benefits of open source.
Yet despite all the values open source epitomize, there is one thing true open source systems do not feature: widespread use among anyone falling outside the relatively narrow swath of high-end geek users.
How many non-geeks use Ubuntu? How many even know what Ubuntu is?
That’s because most technology users want a reliable, consistent experience along with a clear and easy path to getting new features. That kind of an experience comes with a price: control.
Likewise in the smartphone market. Try telling an Apple iPhone user that the iOS is fundamentally flawed because they cannot change their default browser. They’ll likely just stare at you. They don’t care. They would rather wait for the next version of iOS to include whatever new features might be available now in a third party browser.
Because iPhone users have a clear expectation of (approximately) when they will get the newest iOS versions and also which phones will be supported. Apple has done an exceptional job of being consistent in meeting these expectations.
Contrast that with the rollout of Android’s latest iteration: Android 4.X Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). Although ICS was announced and released by Google back in November, only 2.9 percent of Android devices are using it.
Even some of Google’s own flagship devices, the Nexus S line, have not yet been updated. At this writing, the Verizon Nexus S is slated to receive the update “soon,” reps say, while the Sprint Nexus S 4G has yet to be announced publicly.
Consider also the fact that — for a while — Verizon blocked its customers from downloading the Google Wallet app.
Google has ceded too much control over the Android experience to the manufacturers and, especially, to the carriers.
Android users ought to be enjoying the exciting new features of Ice Cream Sandwich en masse. Android bloggers should be posting tips and tricks for getting the most out of the new Android OS. Instead, forums and blogs alike are fixated on the questions of whether customers will even get Android 4.X ICS and when?
It’s easy to see why this happened.
Because the carriers and manufacturers don’t have any responsibilities towards maintaining a certain level of support for Android, they would rather push customers into buying a new device. This results in phone updates coming very slowly, or not at all. That in turn forces expectant users to consider a new purchase or be left hanging.
The time has come for Google to reclaim some measure of control over the Android experience, before customers become disenchanted with inconsistent support and lost expectations. Unfortunately, as it has already released Android as open source, Google is somewhat limited in the amount of direct control it is able to exert. But Android is no normal open source system.
I have two suggestions for accomplishing the same results through leadership:
First, make sure Google takes control of the next Nexus phone. When the next iteration of Android is released, Nexus phones should get the update immediately. Not several months down the road as they do today.
Secondly, Google should support independent ROM developers and help them to (a) certify as a Google-approved ROM, and (b) make it easier for end users to install custom ROMs. This will put additional pressure on manufacturers and carriers to stay current in their support for existing devices.
Android is too powerful and valuable to be relegated to the back of the line because consumers got fed up with inconsistent experience and unclear expectations. We love Android because of Google, not the manufacturers or carriers. It’s time to put more Google back into Android.