While Android has become the smartphone platform with the largest installed base, its future in that position is not guaranteed and it is seeing competition from a contender many had considered also-ran: Microsoft.
Signaling: “We’re not sure Android is a critical asset”
Android has had a fantastic run over the last couple of years and was positioned as the best alternative to Apple’s ambitions in the space, which makes recent comments by Google’s new leader somewhat disconcerting.
During this week’s proceedings surrounding Oracle’s lawsuit against Google over use of Java code in Android, Larry Page made a very curious remark: he said he wasn’t sure that Android was a critical asset to Google and saw it as mainly a vehicle to get Google products to run on mobile devices. This was an odd bit of signaling as it seemed to imply that support for Android as a platform is far from guaranteed. As a developer, this could be a cause for substantial concern: if I develop for Android today, what kind of guarantees do I have that the OS will still be supported tomorrow.
We’ve already seen Amazon taking the Android core and turning it into another product (ie. the Kindle Fire). It wouldn’t surprise me if Google’s plans for Motorola were to create a new version of Android that only runs on Motorola devices. If that happens, what would developers who have invested time and effort in the current versions of Android do?
The coming OS war
By contrast, Apple appears to be going all in on iOS, even going as far as bringing iOS features into its traditional computer business. Looking at Apple’s future roadmap, it seems increasingly clear that the company intends to merge iOS and OSX so the same OS runs on all the products it offers and the company is investing heavily on making that merger a reality. Along the way, they are sending a clear signal that iOS is Apple’s platform for the future and a key part of their business.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has always seen its Windows operating system as one of the pillars of its business. With the release of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft made it very clear that the operating system they were selling in that space was an important one for them and one that was targeted solely at phones. This allowed them to focus the operating system for a specific kind of use, with a different operating system being available for tablets (the disastrously named Windows RNT). The radical new Metro UI interface they brought to their phones is also slated to make it into desktop version of their flagship operating system as well as into the Xbox interface. This points to Microsoft sharing Apple’s view that a single integrated experience between all operating systems they offer is where the future is.
This clearly sets up the mobile landscape for a repeat of the desktop OS wars of the 1980s/1990s with a key difference. This time, there are two strong players looking to leverage their position on one end of the spectrum to get a larger slice of the overall pie: Apple will leverage its success in the mobile world to help increase the footprint of its computer offering while Microsoft will come at it in the reverse direction, trying to leverage its desktop footprint to get at the mobile market.
You’re either all in or you’re out
Apple and Microsoft are going all in. Apple will continue to succeed, having developed a fairly strong head start. Meanwhile, Microsoft has tempted others into joining its coalition. On the device end, Nokia has gone all in on the Windows platform, staking its future on its success. The Finnish company know what the mobile game is, as it once was the leader in the space, and now has to prove that its strategy of going all-in with an operating system many thought of as an also-ran will be successful. In a way, the Microsoft Nokia partnership can work as a reminder of the Microsoft Intel partnership of the past, with Microsoft providing software and a partner providing hardware.
Apple’s own Steve Jobs has long seen the world as one where hardware and software practice ought to be integrated along a single stack: his view was always that Apple should produce both the software and hardware to define the complete experience. Over the last year, Microsoft has worked hard with Nokia to develop what amounts to a tight integration with a preferred partner. With few other companies betting the farm on Microsoft’s new OS, this allowed the two partners to stay focused on making the partnership work. Microsoft has also made it clear in its integration guidelines that the user experience (ie. how user interact with their operating system) was something Microsoft controlled, not the hardware manufacturer.
By contrast, Android is now spread across anywhere between a dozen and half a dozen manufacturers, each with a slightly different look and feel. Pick up an Android phone from HTC, Motorola, or Samsung and you end up with experiences that are similar but also not completely alike. In its attempt at domination, Google has focused on the guts of the software but not on how individuals work with it. As a result, Android is the type of operating systems engineers love but the general public tolerates. Meanwhile, the inconsistent upgrade cycles from device to device has creating an environment where there are more Android devices but also one where there are more flavors of Android out there, making it difficult for developers to manage.
For example, look at the Android phone of a non-technical person: most likely, the phone comes with the stock apps, and whatever other apps have been downloaded are probably not been updated in a while (a quick way to evaluate that is by launching Google Play (an unfortunate name in itself as it seems to focus on apps that cannot possibly be about business); in most cases, people will be asked to agree to the terms of services because they haven’t really launched what used to be called the Market since they initially got their phones. Complicating things even further, Google has now acquired Motorola, which may mean the company is going to produce its own phones but also unsettles its hardware partners as they may now found themselves in a situation where they have to compete with their own software providers.
A big push
Verizon, one of the largest mobile providers on the American market, recently announced that it would throw its support behind Microsoft to create a third major player in the space, even though it is the company that has benefited the most from Android’s growth. Meanwhile, AT&T is working very hard to make Windows Phone a huge success, pushing the platform with a strong marketing campaign that has already led to early shortages in the US market.
The pricing of Nokia’s Windows Phones is also interesting, with devices that are about $100 cheaper than their competitors in the space: the market they’re going after is not the more gadget-centric crowd but rather the mainstream that has heard of smartphones but not yet made the jump (and that mainstream represents about 60% of all phone users right now). A lot of those users may go for an iPhone because of its elegance or might go for a Windows phone because of its price. This leaves Android devices in the odd situation of neither being the best devices from a user experience standpoint nor being the value devices from a price one.
So without a strong marketing push by partners and a value proposition that is hard to figure, what to make of Android? That question is one that may hobble future sales for devices from the company.
“Developers, developers, developers”
One thing Microsoft understand more than most is that the future of any platform is contingent on developers supporting it. In fact, the company’s CEO scream about developers has become its own meme. Apple, on the other side, has long managed its developers relations through it annual developers’ conference and related online center. The two companies listen to input from their development community and respond by bring forward features that help those developers succeed.
By comparison, Google is a company that sees itself as developer led and thus does not feel it needs to take outside input. Instead, it queries its internal people and based on that brings what it feels is best for the development community. This has led to a decrease in the interest developers have in the platform. That decrease could spell trouble in the future.
Some claim the decrease is related to the increasing fragmentation of the Android market. But more troubling is that the monetization of apps on the Android platform seems to present a substantially larger climb than on other platforms. iOS has won the race on that end but interestingly enough, Microsoft may have an opportunity to come in in second as it has a better understanding of how to support third party developers. With less than half of what iOS has in terms of apps with in-app purchase capability, Android has a long way to go to make monetizing on the platform something good for developers and Google’s DNA being all about advertising will not help when it comes to that model.
So if you’re a developer, what should you do? First, the obvious thing is to start developing for iOS. Start with the iPhone and go to the iPad. But once you’re done, take a very serious look at the Windows Phone. It may be a smaller market today but I would bet the future of apps rolling out on Windows Phone is brighter than that of similar apps rolling out on Android