There have been lots of interesting movements in the android world of late that have made me wonder what the future holds for Android. In my mind, Android is currently in a transitional state – It started off as an experiment, became successful, but in ways that many didn’t imagine (including Google) which has left it with some contradictions. These contradictions cannot exist forever, so I’m sure individual players in the handset/carrier/mobile markets are cooking up strategies to gain more control and extract more value from the success of Android. Here’s a list of some of the most glaring contradictions:
Contradiction 1: Android is successful (>50% of the market), but Google makes next to no money on it.
According to some recent reports, Google made all of $2 per android device. Compare that with Apple’s estimated $500+ on every iPhone/iPad over its lifetime. Of course, money is not the only reason Google is in the mobile business, but the income difference is just so glaring. There are some other weird things going on as well. Microsoft apparently makes something like $5 per android device, and Google itself probably makes more money from iOS than from Android. This upside-down world is probably not sustainable, as players rework their strategies to make money from their own assets, which they have far more control over.
Contradiction 2: Google has effectively lost control of the Android brand
Various mobile operators, handset manufacturers, app developers and other ecosystem players are riding on Android’s popularity, and Google is struggling to keep its Android empire in check. This might be a futile attempt, since Android is fundamentally open-source, and Google cannot really wield any power over the other players. This is exactly what happened with Java and Sun – Sun’s decision to make Java open meant great success for Java, but Sun effectively lost control of it, didn’t really make much money from Java, and eventually had to sell itself to Oracle. This historical lesson is undoubtedly weighing on Google’s shoulders, and they’re desperate to avoid Sun’s mistakes.
The most clear indication of this came a few weeks ago when Google re-branded the market place to “Play”. I think it was a concious decision to abandon the name “Android Marketplace” and change it to “Google Play”, in an effort to wrest control of the monetary aspects of the Android marketplace. Google seems to be distancing itself from the “Android” brand, while trying to build up some assets that it can have full control over.
Contradiction 3: Android’s partners are also Google’s competitors
This is a particularly hairy area that Google must want a quick resolution to. On the one hand, players like Samsung, HTC etc… are close partners in the android eco-system, but now are directly competing with Google’s Motorola. From the perspective of Samsung et. al., Google must appear to be playing a dangerous double game: Samsung powers its phones on an OS that Google controls, to which a competitor (Motorola) has direct access and influence. Samsung must be really worried that Google may pull the Android rug from under its feet. The other problem is also a well known one: The handset manufacturers are all competing without the ability to really differentiate on software, since they are all using the same Android. No one wants to compete on just hardware specs: that’s a road to ruin. Samsung, HTC and the other manufacturers are already on their way: With custom “skins” on top of android, with proprietary android marketplaces so they can control developers and payments etc…
Amazon has shown that this differentiation strategy, when fully executed, can work. Amazon, as you know, has forked Android, and is comfortably making money off of the Kindle Fire. Although it is based on Android, the Kindle fire shows absolutely no indication that it is an Android system. And Amazon is making comfortable money from it too – and so are developers selling on Amazon’s app marketplace.
What does this all mean for Android?
One possible way out of this confusing ecosystem for Google could be do spin off Android into its own open-source foundation, which will let Google implement its own “version” of Android. This is analogous to the Unix world: “Unix” is a bunch of standards that various vendors loosely agree to, and then each vendor is free to create their own implementations with their own specific extensions. I’m also betting that Google’s effort behind branding “Nexus” and “Play” will get serious. Google probably launches new “Nexus” or “Google Play” phones and tablets (made by Motorola) over the next year, effectively completing the transformation. Samsung will also probably fork off Android to wrest control of the OS for its phones.
For developers, life is about to get difficult. If the effort to standardize Android fails, there’s going to be lots of OSes that you need to build for. These OSes are kind-of similar, but not really, making the existing Android fragmentation problem worse. And if Windows 8 is even slightly successful, it will mean yet another platform for app developers to address. This will probably push everyone to standardized technologies like HTML5 much faster. I think Facebook sees this coming, and might explain their big push to HTML5-based apps and games.
As Yogi Bera once said, it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But we do it anyway, for the entertainment value if nothing else. So, what do YOU think the future of Android is?