Android as the Platform For Commodity Electronics

by Ben Bajarin   |   November 8th, 2013

In the most recent episode of my podcast with Benedict Evans we discussed the post PC era and Android’s role in this post PC era. We touch on a number of points but during the course of the conversation an interesting thought hit me. While many look at what Android is doing in phones, what it is enabling in tablets, and even broader with the internet of things is perhaps the most interesting.

It led me to state on the podcast that Android’s real role is as the smart platform for commodity connected electronics. Over 80% (conservatively as it is likely higher) of Android’s market share is made up of mid-low range cost smartphones, tablets, and a host of other electronics. What is growing, however, is Android’s presence on appliances and other non-computing devices. In essence Android is shaping up to be more like a bios, or a debugged (often poorly debugged) platform.

When I talk to companies looking to make connected appliances it seems their options are either standard Linux or Android. The argument against standard Linux is that once they implement it they are often responsible to maintain or sometimes creating driver support. For example, a company that creates an appliance with bluetooth connectivity running embedded Linux will often be responsible for doing the updated software work and compliance when a new version of Bluetooth comes up. Embedded Linux simply requires more software development work on behalf of the OEM in most cases. Where with Android, Google does this for the industry.

This is why Android is making its way as the standard platform for commodity electronics. Things like point of retail screens, or running on coffee pots, refrigerators, commodity TVs, tablets that are only e-readers, or movie players, etc. OEMs can make devices running Android on low-cost hardware and not have to worry about managing the software.

A recent SoC company I spoke with at ARM Tech Con last week shared with me that they are shipping a Cortex A5 (a low-end smartphone chip) as a tablet reference design for white box OEMs in China who are taking this platform to market in about two weeks. Nearly all SoC vendors I speak with are recognizing Android as the default platform for electronics for the reasons I mentioned above and most of them are of the commodity nature.

This is actually a good thing. Something like this is needed to develop the future of our connected devices. A platform was needed and if not for Android/Google who would have owned it and enabled it. Google did this because if it wasn’t for them it would have likely been Microsoft with embedded CE. Only Microsoft charged 7-10 dollars for that which makes a huge difference in a commodity electronics market.

The real question is how–or even if–Google can tie any of this to value for Google. It is reasonable to believe that Android may run on tens of billions of connected electronics with only a fraction of those actually adding any value to Google’s ecosystem, business initiatives or revenue. And that may be Ok.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • tz

    I would guess that pride and bragging rights are worth the expense of Android to Google, in lieu of montary return.

  • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

    My connected, Android refrigerator interrupts dinner to tell me that pork chops are half off. And another piece of my soul goes away.

    • klahanas

      And here I thought you were on a fruitarian diet! My bad! :-)

  • pxlated

    But, what happens to all these connected devices as Google tightens their control? The updates to drivers etc. may not come. Seems like taking the easy route now could possibly byte one in the arse later.

    • klahanas

      Definitely a concern. Another major player has been doing this for quite a while…

      • Space Gorilla

        Wattatroll.

        • pxlated

          You must be looking in a mirror?

          • Space Gorilla

            So clever.

      • JLM

        Microsoft is hardly a “major player” in the CE business anymore.

        • klahanas

          Yeah, them too… :-)

  • EOrr

    I think people often miss the point with Google and android. Google had as its original goal the archiving and organization of all the worlds knowledge. This is still its purpose.

    Every business has both suppliers and customers. People often assume that Google and what it provides in services mean that the consumers who use Google services are the customers. This is (mostly) false. The users of Google services are actually the suppliers. What they supply is data. Google then provides that data through its platforms to those businesses who want to use that data to target ads. Those firms are Googles true customers, but the power dynamics mean that Google would rather alienate its customers than lose its suppliers because Google is only viable if it has more data than anyone else.

    Android like every other Google product is about collecting data. The question for me is whether maintaining and upgrading Android will ever be more bothersome than the benefit of the data they receive. I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.

  • Ian Waring

    Chromecast has an Android base and can take tasks from a Phone or Tablet, and from there on do its job streaming directly from the traffic source; the Phone or Tablet just becomes a remote at that point without being exposed to the main traffic volume.

    All eyes on the Chromecast API when Google release it, to see if it becomes their “Internet of a Things” API. Or not!

    • Johnny

      iOS can do the same thing. I can go to a friend’s home and stream movies/TV/etc that I buy from iTunes onto their AppleTV, without wasting my battery on my phone.

      Chromecast is good and cheap, but it is not yet great, though it may be some day.

  • Johnny

    What happens when my Refrigerator, Washer, and Dryer become part of a bot net ? Skynet?

    With the lack of timely updates for Android phones, do we really think the OEMs are going to update the firmware or OS on our home Appliances?

    The current problem is that the OEMs don’t have the software skills. They are hardware manufacturers with a free OS.

    That cool refrigerator with built in touch screen LCD is never going to be updated.

  • splamco

    What could possibly be the value of having a planet full of devices running on your platform? Within 2 years – Apple will be making Android apps for Apple services and within 5 years – iOS will be a theme layer on top of Android. Ubiquity wins every time.

    • steve_wildstrom

      You mean the way OS X is a theme layer on top of Windows on my Mac? The problem with the winner-take-all theory of platforms is that it didn’t turn out to be true even in the case that was supposed to be the archetype, the PC. The Mac continues to be a very profitable platform, both for Apple and for third-party developers.

  • Binu E R

    Android is certainly becoming the platform of choice over standard Linux with most SoC vendors. But I wonder about the following reason for the same from article – “The argument against standard Linux is that once they implement it they are often responsible to maintain or sometimes creating driver support”
    In my experience the hardware component vendor is still the responsible for driver support with Android as well. I suppose Galaxy Nexus not having KitKat support illustrates this – TI is no longer providing driver support for OMAP4 and Google doesn’t care either.