Why The Android Update Alliance Was Doomed From the Start

by Ben Bajarin   |   December 19th, 2011

When Google announced the Android Update Alliance, an initiative to bring each new Android OS release to all devices in a timely manner, it was well-intentioned but doomed from the start.

Jamie Lendino over at PC Magazine had a great column called “Google’s Android Update Alliance is Already Dead.” I recommend a read of this column in order to get some more context from the handset OEMs and carrier quotes on the subject. The reality is that this alliance was flawed at a fundamental level from the beginning and was destined to failure.

There is an important element to understand about this industry and it comes down to two types of strategies to bring devices to market. The first strategy is a direct to consumer product development approach. This is the strategy most closely followed by Apple, due to the fact that they have their own retail stores and control their own retail presence. Both of those strategic points in Apple’s favor are strengths at a competitive level. In this strategy the end consumer is your customer, they are the ones you are attempting to sell directly to. When a more direct to consumer strategy is employed, a more limited product mix is possible.

The second strategy is a channel strategy. This is the strategy that many take by order of necessity. In this strategy, although devices are made for consumers, the customer is actually the channel, or the retailer and carrier. Device manufacturers actually create products specifically for the channel in the hopes that the channel can sell them to consumers. Device manufacturers are not guaranteed that the channel will sell their device or give them favorable margins on devices sold. Because of this fact, device OEMs must create a device menu in order to give many different channels the opportunity to sell different devices. The other key point in a channel strategy, is that the channel (whether it be a retailer or a carrier) is not interested in selling two products that are too similar to each other or target the same market segment. This is why we see such a heavy device mix in carrier retail for example. I empathize with companies who have to employ a channel strategy because it is very hard and very frustrating–and also very political. However, employing a channel strategy engrains in a device OEM what I call a “ship-and-forget” mentality. This is at a fundamental level why the Android Update Alliance was destined to fail.

This mindset is unfortunate but necessary to employ a successful channel strategy. Companies that make a menu of devices to sell to the channel need to move quickly to the next batch of devices and commit existing development resources to this new batch of devices.   This makes supporting legacy devices more difficult due to most of the engineering always having to move to new product development. There are fewer resources, and less priorities frankly, for legacy devices because almost all the focus is on the future not the past. This again is fed by the business model of those who are selling to the channel which yields low margins but requires high volume.

It is also partially Google’s fault because they put updating and supporting devices in the hands of the OEMs. Often this is because the OEMs have changed Android slightly in order to differentiate their handsets, therefore said OEM is responsible for the engineering to get their legacy devices up to speed. It is hard to side with one or the other on this issue. Of course if no one changed Android and left it stock, it would be easier to update quickly. The only problem with that is that there is VERY little differentiation in that world and any differentiation is limited to hardware. This is the sea of sameness I talk frequently about and in the past it led to spec battles and very little innovation.

If you want to see the sea of sameness in action, go to a big box retailer who sells PCs and look at the wall of Windows machines, all running identical software thus the only difference is in hardware. Hardware differentiation alone would be a boring future.

The channel strategy that is employed by many in the industry is a simple truth about how this industry works. It has its plusses but it also has its minuses. Vendors must differentiate, but they also have to cater to the channel. The channel, and horizontal operating system solutions create this sea of sameness due to the nature of the business model.

Everyone from the OEM, to the channel (retailer and carrier), as well as the software platform (Google) have to align for the good of the ecosystem if this is to get any better. The only problem is from what I see so far they are still more dis-aligned than aligned.

So although it was well-intentioned, the channel strategy and lack of Google’s own committing of more resources to assist OEMs is what keeps the Android OS unity a pipe dream.

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
  • jfutral

    Good points. In an industry that is used to churning out new models every couple of months, having an old model handset that can upgrade to the latest OS means potential lost sales. Having the latest OS becomes a new feature for the checklist mentality. If you can upgrade the OS, that feature on a new device has no value.

    And for carriers that have come up with a euphemism for losing customers (“churn”) and have built their business model to accommodate that (instead of building a model that works on retaining customers), handset makers aren’t the only one’s not all that interested in a handset that is upgradable.

    But this is a point I have long made. Fragmentation is a difficult issue for developers. But the cell phone industry was built on fragmentation, so customers have been nurtured to expect it, even live with it. that’s one reason why Apple was able to disrupt the industry. They want to change expectations. Google, on the other hand, let’s the industry do things as they always have.

    Interesting. Fatal, but interesting.
    Joe

    • benbajarin

      I agree with the fragmentation thing. I hear the same thing from developers, particularly those who are passionate about the quality of their software. I’m curious though if you think that Windows Phone’s approach or perhaps the open sourcing of webOS brings anything to solve the fragmentation or developer issues.

      • jfutral

        That’s going to pretty much depend on how much control the handset makers and carriers are given over how the OS is used and how desirable the devices are to the consumer. Right now, neither OS is making that kind of impact.

        Until fragmentation is an issue for consumers (or some other action makes Android fragmentation moot, such as another unified OS overtaking Android), the developers are in a tough spot for non-iOS devices.

        There really is no unified Android market. In this respect, developers have to change their thinking.

        Joe

  • jamesdbailey

    It’s too bad that Google didn’t force the handset OEMs to use stock Android. If they had, one of two results would have occurred.

    The lack of hardware innovation would have been solved because OEMs would need to differentiate themselves. If their only solution was different hardware and custom applications, then it would be innovate or die.

    The more likely alternative would have been the same lack of hardware innovation we currently see in the Android market (epitomized by Samsung’s duplication of Apple’s designs.) The consequence of that would be death to all but a few OEMs. This would lead to less fragmentation which would be good for the users and the overall Android ecosystem (i.e. developers.)

    Instead, because Google decided to take a hands off approach, the Android market is highly fragmented with a lot of obsolete handsets with outdated software that will never be updated. Not a good outcome in my opinion.

    • http://twitter.com/w_jackson w_jackson

      google didn’t (and doesn’t) have the power in this relationship to “force the handset OEMs to use stock Android” because the handset vendors don’t have that power. When you rely entirely on a channel strategy as your GTM, you are somewhat at mercy of the channel. There are many, many stories of clashes of who “owns” the customer in these relationships, and then who decides what the customer will get. (and remember, Google is one more step removed since their customer is the handset company)

      Apple was able to change that dynamic, but it hasn’t completely spread through the entire industry. Google tried to change it with the Google-branded and sold Nexus One but then gave up when things started getting tough. Apple had the channel and more importantly the belief that they would have built-in demand for their phone and decided to force the issue. It is rumored that Verizon was first approached for the iPhone in the US but wouldn’t allow Apple to control the content of the phone. AT&T was willing to go there, and the exclusive was granted.

      However, some power has shifted to the handset vendors and to the software vendors. And in my mind, Apple gets most of the credit for bringing about this change. Remember, it was not too long ago that NOTHING got installed on a handset unless it went through the carrier and different versions of handsets had different software (remember the Verizon bluetooth lawsuit). Apple (and AT&T in the US) drove this change, and we should all be thankful.