Google made a series of announcements at I/O relating to Android and for me, one of the big themes was Google exercising greater control over both the version of Android that runs on smartphones and tablets and the new flavors that will run in cars, TVs and wearable devices. Having seen some fairly Google-light (and Google-absent) versions of Android make up much of the growth in the Android base in recent years, Google seems keen to re-establish core Google services at the heart of Android going forward, both in emerging and mature markets. But another thing Google seems to be trying to do is give people a reason to choose Android itself across a range of devices, rather than a particular flavor of Android.
The irony with Android is, even as it takes the world by storm, very few users actually have strong associations with the Android brand or experience. In the very early days in the US, many people saw the Droid and Android brands as synonymous, with Verizon’s various collaborations with Motorola representing what Android meant to users seeing an emerging dichotomy between iPhones on AT&T and Droids on Verizon. That early boost for the Droid brand was also a boon to Android as a whole, sparking strong demand some time after the fairly lackluster initial response to the first Android devices, but doing little to boost the Android brand per se.
Over the last several years, Samsung’s Galaxy line has come to occupy a similar position in the minds of consumers, not just in the US but in all mature markets as it relates to Android. Rather than choosing Android devices generically, many people are choosing “a Galaxy” as if the two were synonymous. Driven by Samsung’s enormous marketing machine, this close association of the Galaxy brand with what is in reality a broad category of Android phones has been bad news for Samsung’s major competitors on Android, such as HTC, LG and Sony. But it’s also arguably been bad news for Google, because the primary brand loyalty in some consumers’ minds has been to Samsung rather than Google. To the extent consumers have bought products from multiple consumer electronics categories, such as smartphones, tablets, TVs and smartwatches, they’ve likely sought an all-Samsung experience but not an all-Google experience.
In addition to Samsung’s efforts to promote its own ecosystem, this is partly Google’s fault. Google’s approach to cross-device integration has been, to some extent, to abstract that integration from the OS itself, in a clear contrast with both Apple and Microsoft, which have sought to bake integration deeply into their mobile and PC operating systems. Even as integration deepens, Google has taken services like Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps and Google Now and made them available on many devices, even those running iOS rather than Android. There was little reason then, to worry about choosing an all-Google device experience, when essentially any device would run those core Google services reasonably well if users wanted to use them. As long as Google’s objective was merely maximizing the proliferation of Google services, this was an appropriate strategy. But it no longer seems to content to pursue this approach.
This year’s I/O keynote was the culmination of months of effort from Google to reclaim the Android experience from Samsung and to a lesser extent other OEMs and to stamp the Android brand clearly on all the various devices it will power. There have been signs this was coming for several months. The introduction of a “powered by Android” label on the boot-up screen on Android devices back in March was one step and the pressure Google allegedly put on Samsung to tone down the UI customizations on its devices was another. But the introduction of Android Wear was perhaps the clearest signal Google wanted to change things, since that platform doesn’t allow for any of the UI customizations Android on smartphones and tablets permits. Google services and not OEM services are front and center on these devices – the voice control is Google’s and not S Voice, the calendar will be the Google Calendar and not the LG calendar app, and the weather widget will be Google’s too.
The additional details that emerged at I/O around Android Wear just reinforce this perception. Whereas Samsung’s smartwatches to date have been designed to work exclusively with Samsung smartphones, Android Wear is by definition OEM-agnostic within the Android world. Samsung’s Gear Live, LG’s G Watch and Motorola’s Moto 360 will all work with any recent Android devices, not just those made by their respective manufacturers. Google is attempting to create an Android ecosystem that trumps those from Samsung and other Android OEMs.
The additional flavors of Android announced at I/O take this even further, with Android Auto and Android TV both adopting the Android brand and focusing on vanilla flavors of Android for these new domains, while emphasizing compatibility with Android as a whole. Android Wear, Android TV and Android Auto represent the first attempts by Google to really take integration beyond device-agnostic services and deeper into the operating system itself. Beyond Android, Google is also integrating Chromebooks into this integration picture, baking deeper integration into that operating system too, with unlocking, app porting and other features binding the two operating systems together. Again, this seems like an attempt to get users to choose not just Google services, but Google-powered devices as well.
The big question is whether Google will succeed in these efforts. Marketing services and operating systems is notoriously tough, as Microsoft learned the hard way when it initially tried to promote Windows Phone itself rather than specific phones running it. Microsoft eventually shifted to promoting specific devices instead, giving consumers a concrete call to action, and that may be one reason why it created the Surface too, as a company-owned instantiation of Windows 8. But Google is selling its own hardware business, and seems keen to move away from creating its own hardware in the various categories powered by Android. Stamping the Android brand on various devices may help, but it’s going to be a tough sell, especially when going up against Samsung’s far greater marketing spend and specific products.