One of the reasons for Android’s success is the speed of innovation the team have delivered. Android was launched in response to the perceived slow pace of evolution in a mobile software platform market controlled by a few dominant handset OEMs. Since the introduction of the first public release of Android in February 2009, Google has released ten versions of the platform. The latest in February this year included features such as support for gyroscopes and Near Field Communications, a core technology for contactless payments systems.
February also saw the release of the first version of Android to explicitly support tablets. With Android application support for Google TV also slated for later this year, Google will soon have a platform that is truly cross-device, something only Apple’s iOS has been able to claim to date.
Unlike iOS, Android is, of course, a platform on which companies other than the platform maker builds devices. A feature that has attracted OEMs such as Samsung and Sony Ericsson to use Android is that they are able to take an Android release and develop their own custom variations of the platform. Motorola and LG for example have both build new custom UI’s to provide a distinct and differentiated experience for users.
It is this rich ecosystem of software innovation from multiple parties that is arguably a key factor behind Android’s success.
However, the range of different versions of Android that results from this approach creates problems for software developers and content companies who are trying to build applications and services that run on Android devices. Depending on which features of Android an app uses, developers frequently need to create different versions of their content to cover multiple versions of the platform on which they want the app to run.
This platform fragmentation increases the cost and complexity for developers and high profile players such as Rovi, makers of Angry Birds, and Netflix (http://bit.ly/gSCoyQ ) have both struggled recently to ensure their apps are available on all mobile phones. With the prospect of tablets and TV apps increasing fragmentation further, the risk is that those costs could potentially spiral out of control.
In a sign that Google is looking to address the fragmentation issue, Business Week recently reported (http://buswk.co/g7TUZi) that Google is starting to enforce “anti-fragmentation” clauses in its licences, constraining OEMs from creating their own versions of Android. Going forward, it may well be the case that OEMs would be licenced to ship only those versions of Android created by Google.
This move towards a homogeneous, centrally controlled platform would be good news for developers struggling with the economics of application creation, particularly those that seek to develop apps over tablets and connected TVs as well phones.
However, it would also be bad news for OEMs. The opportunity for them to innovate and differentiate will diminish over time. Instead, product feature sets would increasingly be dependent on Google’s internal or community sourced innovation programs.
According to Business Week, Google’s moves to control platform specifications have already attracted the interest of the US Justice Department. Google have already been referred to anti-trust authorities in South Korea for allegedly blocking OEMs from incorporating custom third party search features in Android (http://bit.ly/f4njgL ).
Nevertheless, this structural move towards cross-functional software platforms seems inevitable. Consumers clearly want services that run seamlessly across multiple devices types. Simplicity of operation is the key. And that only comes with homogenous, cross-device software platforms.
The key question for the consumer electronics industry – and indeed for Google itself - is whether players other than Google can step up and provide competitive platforms on which those products would be built?
The industry needs healthy, balanced competition between a number of equals, not an Android army of occupation dictating to the rest of the industry what features sets will be incorporated in the platform and when.
As I commented in my blog a couple of months ago (http://bit.ly/gSkgH4), the Microsoft/Nokia tie up would seem to be an attempt by those two organisations to create a viable competitor to Android. However, both Nokia mobiles based on Windows Phone 7 and the new tablet versions of Windows are at least twelve months away.
As yet, the few other organisations have shown any signs that they are in a position to offer a comprehensive platform. Samsung has taken steps to introduce a more homogeneous device strategy, backing the Galaxy product series as the pillar of a multi-device platform strategy. But that device is an Android device, and the organisation appears some way off from turning Bada into a viable cross device software platform extending to both tablets and TVs. RIM and HP, both with technically proficient mobile platforms, have yet to gain market traction.
Many players believe the solution lies in using the capabilities of HTML5 to produce a cross-device execution environments within a browser. Whether the W3C can deliver a standard sufficiently robust to meet the needs of both manufacturers for differentiation and the content industry for homogeneity remains a very big question.
On June 8th this year, I’ll be chairing a panel session on multiscreen media experiences at the Open Mobile Summit in London (www.openmobilesummit.com). With the events theme being “Connecting Everything”, one of my key questions to that group will be how quickly they expect to be able to create cross-platform experiences for users beyond the Apple environment, and who they expect the key technology partners to be to deliver those experiences.
With Stephen Elop, the Nokia CEO, also delivering the keynote address at the event, it is the ideal occasion to ask how he sees Nokia supporting cross-device consumer demand going forward and whether Nokia/Microsoft, Apple, and Google really will be the only cross platform games in town.
If you are coming to the Open Mobile Summit, use the DISCOUNT CODE: CARU before April 21st for an extra reduction on the list price.
Hope to see you there.