Google Android: When an Open Ideal Stunts Growth

There’s a big problem looming for Google and its Android OS. And it has to do with Google’s ideals for its open system.

Photo credit: Gina Smith for

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

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.

For all our grousing about the heavy-handedness that comes from Cupertino and Redmond, Apple and Microsoft historically have been better able to give businesses and consumers more consistency in terms of use, cost and experience than any distribution of Linux ever has.

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.


  • But the iOS users don’t know any better. They’re just like the IBM pc customers from the 80’s listening to “big brother” tell them what they will like in a mobile device in OS.

    **just kidding, btw***

    -RAP, II

  • You may be kidding, Ant, but that really is the attitude among a lot of the geek-set. And I have discovered One True Thing in my old age, as I try to juggle running my own business with kung fu competitions and homeschooling. I’m busy, and sometimes I just want someone to tell me what to do.

    I think most end consumers don’t want to spend time mucking around with different browsers and trying out various skins. They just want to text and upload faux-grainy pics of their cats on the window sill.

  • I agree with you that Android is in trouble, but I don’t quite buy the article’s diagnosis of why that is, or the solution it prescribes. Certainly, Google’s open sourcing of Android put it at risk of losing control of the OS, and certainly Amazon’s stunning success with the Google-defying Kindle Fire and Amazon AppStore demonstrates that Google has indeed lost that control. But at the same time, the open source policy enabled Google to capture the biggest share of the world smartphone market in late 2010, just two years after the first Droid was released, and to climb to more than a 50% share a year later. And I’d argue that Android’s success invalidates, once and for all, the “only gear-heads use open source operating systems” meme.

    Despite its lack of control of the manufacturing process, Google’s biggest problem with Android hasn’t been phone technology, it’s been the mobile carriers that distribute those phones. (Not surprising–they’ve been Apple’s biggest problem too: https://anewdomain.net2012/03/28/ipad-data-plans/)

    Google can encourage ROM developers and release all the flagship Nexus it wants, but it won’t matter if the cretins who provide Android data plans insist on shipping them with locked bootloaders and kernels to prevent adoption of CyanogenMod and other independently-developed ROMs, and refuse to undertake the expense and support cost of updating any but their latest, most expensive phones to new versions of the Android OS even when the hardware vendor supplies those upgrades.

  • Thank you for the comment, Paul. I agree with you that the carriers are the #1 problem when it comes to the problems plaguing Android (although the issue of poor data plans, while distressing for consumers, doesn’t seem to be slowing smartphone adoption — Android or otherwise).

    The problem is Google’s insistence on an open “ideal”, not that they released the OS under some form of open license. Insofar as Google has been able to maintain a consistent user experience, Android has been wildly successful with end users. This is what has separated Android from other open source operating systems.

    But there is a difference between an open system and an uncontrolled system, and Android is becoming the latter. Yes, Android was able to obtain an amazing market share in a very short period of time, but at what cost to the long-term viability of the ecosystem?

    My criticism isn’t (necessarily) what Google has done with Android to-date. I think that, in large part, great concessions had to be made to spur adoption among the manufacturers and carriers. But Android, especially with 4.x, is a platform worth having in itself, especially now that manufacturers such as Samsung and HTC and building amazing devices for it (not to mention Canonical’s upcoming Ubuntu for Android: