Android as the Platform For Commodity Electronics

on November 8, 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.