Why Android's fight for survival is just beginning

3rd Oct 2011 | 13:45

Why Android's fight for survival is just beginning

The enemies of Android - and how to defeat them

Android's fight for survival

Android's had it easy. Microsoft hung on to Windows Mobile for far too long and still doesn't really do tablets; HP had to sell three TouchPads for a pound to shift its stock; and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook adventures are like watching a slapstick comedy in painfully slow motion.

That's just as well, because Android hasn't been perfect. If it were Windows, you'd walk into PC World and see PCs running Windows 3.0 and Windows Me next to Windows 7 and a couple of Vista machines.

The UI still needs a bit of work, assuming you actually get the Android UI and not a manufacturer's interpretation of it. Malware's becoming a problem in the Market, developers aren't making big piles of money and it's not always clear when you buy Android kit how future-proof it'll be - if it's future-proof at all.

The good news for Android is that so far, everybody else has been even worse. The bad news is that things are about to get a whole lot more difficult.

Android vs Apple

For now, Android only really has one rival: Apple. Even then, it's proving a tough sell in the tablet space, with manufacturers shipping considerably more tablets than they're selling.

That's not the only worry. Patent problems continue to dog the operating system, to the point where Android fan HTC is apparently considering buying its own OS and Microsoft is making more money from Android-related licensing than it is from Windows Phone.

Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility is bound to make OEMs twitch, too: on the one hand it could bolster Android against patent claims, but on the other it could mean that Google becomes a hardware rival.

Daniel Ashdown, research analyst with Juniper Research, reckons Google isn't daft enough to jeopardise its relationship with Android OEMs. "Open source is the key for Android: vendors have flocked to it because of the cost reduction," he told Techradar. "We don't see them jeopardising these relationships. Patents are a key battleground at the moment, and Google has cited this as a motivating factor - and Motorola's portfolio is substantial."

Android vs Windows 8

We asked industry analyst Gartner for its take on Android. Gartner says that Android's smartphone success is down to three key things: "It had the most attractive devices, strong momentum for its application marketplace, and quick platform evolution."

However, Gartner also sees danger. "The fast pace of Google's OS updates, along with manufacturers diverging from core platforms to differentiate their products, is continuing to fragment the Android base."

The Market is a worry, too, and Gartner reckons it needs quality control. "Google must address the lack of application testing before distribution in its application marketplace to achieve strong Android enterprise deployment," Gartner says. "Application marketplaces outside of Google based on Android have emerged, with the most important being the Amazon Appstore for Android."

And then there's Windows 8. People know Windows, and the new Metro interface offers a combination of simplicity and style that makes it a genuine rival to, rather than a poor photocopy of, iOS.

Windows 8

There's going to be a curated app store offering quality control and money for developers, and the same halo effect that saw iPods sell more Macs could see Windows 8 on PCs driving adoption of Windows Phone on tablets.

Ironically, Windows 8 could teach Android a lesson about fragmentation: there's one OS for tablets and desktops alike, and Metro also appears on Windows Phones. Google, meanwhile, has three mobile OSes, Gingerbread, Honeycomb and Chrome, although Gingerbread and Honeycomb will merge with the release of Ice Cream Sandwich.

Android

INCOMING:The imminent Ice Cream Sandwich update should improve Android's UI, and unite its codebase [picture credit: engadget]

In some respects, Chrome is a victim of Android's success. "Since [Chrome OS's] announcement in 2009, smartphone platforms have evolved to span the tablet form factor," Gartner says.

"These have benefited from hardware acceleration and are sinking the netbook underpinnings of the Chrome OS value proposition. Google has not clearly differentiated Chrome OS from Android. In the long term, Google will be challenged to maintain both Chrome OS and Android."

The smart move might be to kill Chrome altogether. Ashdown thinks that may be on the cards. "We've seen this hinted at by Google, and it is very likely that these two projects are on a convergence course," he says. "Cloud's still in its infancy, though, so the two will operate in tandem for a while yet."

Android vs Amazon and everyone else

Android vs Amazon

Microsoft is the enemy without, but Android also has an enemy within: Amazon. The newly-announced Kindle Fire appears to be the first Android tablet with genuine mass-market appeal, easy access to an enormous library of content and the backing of a household name that people trust with their credit card details.

Kindle fire

Unfortunately, all of the Android stuff is buried: the operating system has been forked, with a new and distinctly un-Google interface stuck on top. The apps, which are likely to generate significant income for developers, come via an Apple-style curated marketplace, not the Android market. And the tablet is tied tightly to Amazon's cloud services, not Google's.

The Kindle Fire exposes three key Android weaknesses: Android doesn't have the enormous media libraries of Apple or Amazon; its UI could do with some polish; and the Android Market isn't making many developers rich. As the tablet wars intensify, those are issues Google needs to address.

Android vs everyone

The nightmare scenario is Apple continuing its purple patch, Nokia selling millions of Windows Phones, Amazon and Microsoft divvying up the bits of the tablet market Apple doesn't want and Android collapsing under the weight of a million lawsuits.

Is that credible? Ashdown doesn't think so. "Amazon's device is about consumption of digital content, whereas the iPad is a premium content consumption and creation device," he says.

"Google has devices running its OS in both of these markets... the tablet market is going to grow massively, and there will be space for different types of player: premium, mass market, prosumer/enterprise, content creation, content consumption and so on."

Android tablets

ALL OVER: One of Android's strengths is that it's everywhere, from cheapo tablets to high-end smartphones

He continues: "While Apple is dominant currently, and its sales will continue to grow, it is inevitably going to lose market share due to a broadening of price points - and that's good for Google."

There's a cloud on that particular horizon, though, and it's still Apple-shaped: what if Apple does what it did with the iPod, making models for all kinds of customers at all kinds of prices? We're seeing echoes of that strategy in the iPhone - when a new one ships, the previous one becomes the budget model - and it could easily work for the iPad too.

Other rivals are less worrying. "Nokia's move to Windows Phone 7 isn't a massive threat to Android because they are just one vendor," Ashdown says, "and many other vendors are spreading devices across both Microsoft's and Google's OSes, with a weighting towards Android."

And Windows 8? "At the moment the tablet is seen as a mobile device, not a PC, and the mobile vendors are dominating. Microsoft will make a big impact, but we think Android will become the leading player in the tablet OS and smartphone OS market by 2015." For now, at least, it's still Google's game to lose.

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