Google’s Fading Focus on Android

on May 18, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Google is holding its I/O developer conference this week and Wednesday morning saw the opening day keynote where it has traditionally announced all the big news for the event. What was notable about this year’s event, though, was what short shrift Android – arguably its major developer platform – received at the keynote and that feels indicative of a shift in Google’s strategy.

Android – The First to Two Billion

One of the first things Google CEO Sundar Pichai did when he got up on stage to welcome attendees was run through a list of numbers relating to the usage of the company’s major services. He reiterated Google has seven properties with over a billion monthly active users but also said several others are rapidly growing, including Google Drive with over 800 million and Got Photos with over 500 million. But the biggest number of all was the number of active Android devices, which passed two billion earlier this week. Now, that isn’t the same as saying it has two billion monthly active users, since some of those devices will belong to the same users as others (e.g. tablets and smartphones), while others may be powering corporate or unmanned devices. But Android is a massive platform for Google and arguably the property with the broadest reach.

Cross-platform Apps and Tools at the Forefront

Yet, Android was given only a secondary role in the keynote, a pattern that arguably began last year. Part of the reason is Google has been releasing new versions of Android earlier in the year than before, giving developers a preview weeks before I/O and then fleshing out details for both developers and users at the event, rather than revealing lots of brand new information. But another big reason is a concession to two realities that have become increasingly apparent over time. First, Google recognizes it’s lost control over the smartphone version of Android, as OEMs and carriers continue to overlay their own apps and services but also slow the spread of new versions. It takes almost two years for new versions of Android to reach half the base. Second, Google also recognizes its ad business can’t depend merely on Android users because a large portion of the total and a majority of the most attractive and valuable users are on other platforms, mostly iOS.

Together, those realities have driven Google to de-emphasize its own mobile operating system as a source of value and competitive differentiation and, instead, to focus on apps and services that exist independently of it. As such, the first hour of Google’s I/O keynote this year was entirely focused on things disconnected from Android, such as the company’s broad investment in AI and machine learning, but also specific applications like the Google Assistant and Google Photos. No transcript is available at the time I’m writing this, but I would wager one of the most frequently repeated phrases during that first hour was “available on Android and iOS” because that felt like the mantra of the morning: broadly available services, not the advantage of using Android. As Carolina pointed out in her piece yesterday, that’s not a stance unique to Google – it was a big theme for Microsoft last week too.

Short Shrift for Android

But for developers who came wanting to hear what’s new with Android, the platform the vast majority of them actually develop for, it must have made for an interesting first 75 minutes or so before Google finally got around to talking about its mobile OS and, even then, not until after talking about YouTube, which has almost zero developer relevance. When it did, Android still got very little attention, with under ten minutes spent on the core smartphone version. Android lead Dave Burke rattled through recent advances in the non-smartphone versions of Android first, including partner adoption of the Wear, Auto, TV, and Things variants, and one brief mention of Chromebooks and ChromeOS.

The user-facing features of Android O feel very much more like catch up than true competitive advantages. In most cases, they’re matching features already available elsewhere or offsetting some of the disadvantages Android has always labored under by being an “open” OS, including better memory management required by its multitasking approach or improved security required by its open approach to apps. From a developer perspective, there were some strong improvements, including better tools for figuring out how apps are performing and how to improve that, support for the Kotlin programming language, and neural network functionality.

A New Emerging Markets Push

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Android presentation was the segment focused on emerging markets, where Android is the dominant platform due to its affordability and in spite of its performance rather than because of it. The reality is Android at this point, stripped of much of its role as a competitive differentiator for Google, has fallen back into the role of expanding the addressable market for Google services. That means optimization for emerging markets.

Android One was a previous effort aimed at both serving those markets better and locking down Android more tightly but it arguably failed in both respects. It’s now having another go with what’s currently called Android Go. This approach seems far more likely to be successful, mostly because it’s truly optimized for these markets and will emphasize not only Google and its OEMs’ roles but those of developers too. That last group is critical for ensuring Android serves emerging market users well and Google is giving them both the incentives and the tools to do better. I love its Building for Billions tagline, which fits with the real purpose of building both devices and apps for the next several billion users, almost all of which will be in these markets.