Google’s Android And The Path Not Taken

Yesterday, Google held its I/O keynote address. Ben Thompson of “stratēchery” has written an excellent article entitled: THE ANDROID DETOUR. I highly encourage you to take the time to read it. I’m going to re-state and build upon his thoughts here.

1) In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone. Google’s then CEO, Eric Schmidt was a member of Apple’s board and an honored guest at the iPhone presentation. It appeared that all was right with the worlds of Apple and Google – Apple was going to do its hardware thing and Google was going to do its services thing and a new era of mutually beneficial cooperation was about to begin.

2) In 2008, Google introduced Android – a direct competitor to Apple’s iOS – and the Apple/Google alliance quickly began to unravel. Schmidt soon left Apple’s board, Steve Jobs later vowed to go “thermonuclear” on Android and the Apple/Google alliance was over almost before it had begun.

3) It’s clear that pre-iPhone, Google was initially aiming Android as a Blackberry and Microsoft Mobile competitor, but as soon as the iPhone appeared on the scene, Google’s Android focus dramatically shifted. Assuming that competing with Apple was the right strategy, Google should be given all the credit in the world for pivoting as rapidly as they did from their original plan to creating a legitimate iPhone competitor.

4) As an aside, I also give Microsoft lots of credit too. When the iPhone initially appeared, Microsoft didn’t foresee the danger it posed. But soon afterwards, they not only recognized the danger but they acted and acted decisively. They took the radical step of abandoning Windows Mobile altogether and initiating their new Windows Phone 7 platform. It was a bold move, but as history as shown, it was one year too late. Windows Phone 7 (now 8) has never gotten any traction and it languishes in third place, just above the rapidly fading Blackberry OS.

5) I think I could make a pretty compelling case that Google should never have made Android a competitor to Apple’s iOS. By doing so, they destroyed a promising alliance and, perhaps, took a long, long, detour down a path that they never should have taken. But that’s all moot now. We’ll never know how that alternative reality would have played out, so there’s little point debating it.

6) What can’t be debated is the effect that Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android have had on the incumbent smartphone competitors. Palm and WebOS were wiped out. Blackberry was devastated. Nokia was humbled. Microsoft Windows was abandoned and replaced by Windows Phone 7.

Pundits often frame the smartphone/tablet wars as a battle between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, but in reality, those two operating systems – with Apple descending from above and Android rising from the below, crushed the existing smartphone competitors between them.


There is little proof that Android has ever made any significant income for Google, but if the destruction of their enemies was Google’s aim, then there is no doubting that the Android strategy was eminently successful.

7) Google’s I/O keynote barely even mentioned Android or any kind of hardware at all. If there was a common theme, it was about service unification between Chrome and Android.

Instead of an updated Nexus 7 tablet or a new Chromebook model, Google spent three hours during Wednesday’s keynote to discuss services and feature upgrades for both Chrome and Android.

If I could describe #io13 in one word it would be “unification”. Same features, services, UI and experiences on Chrome and Android. ~ Kevin C. Tofel

I think that Ben Thompson is spot on with this analysis:

“Services are where Google excels, and it’s where they make their money. It’s why they make the most popular iOS apps, even as their own OS competes for phone market share.

Apple, on the other hand, makes money on hardware. It’s why their services and apps only appear on their own devices; for Apple, services and apps are differentiators, not money-makers.”

“Apple invests in software, apps, and services to the extent necessary to preserve the profit they gain from hardware. To serve another platform would be actively detrimental to their bottom line. Google, on the other hand, spreads their services to as many places as possible – every platform they serve increases their addressable market.”

8) The battle for mobile is over. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android reign as a duopoly and Microsoft and Blackberry hang on by the skin of their teeth. Google is free to put its web services on Android and iOS and to ignore the Blackberry and Windows 8 operating systems. Android has ensured that Google’s services are freely accessible on the only two operating systems that matter. The Android strategy was a success although, perhaps, at great cost. Google’s I/O keynote is living proof that Google is now re-focusing on their original mission of dominating web services.

Chrome OS, Not Android, is Google’s Future

Google recently updated their Chromebook offering and began running new commercials touting the new product. At $249 it is an aggressive price offering, however, the software by way of web apps will be the key. Although, we are not in a full HTML or browser based world for our key applications, I believe there is a good chance that someday we will be. In many of the scenarios I play out in my head about the future, Chrome and Chrome OS is more important to Google than Android.

There is a debate happening in the industry about whether or not we are heading toward a future where all computing takes place in the browser or where all computing takes place with native or installed software.

Today we download and install software or apps on our PCs, smart phones, tablets, and connected TVs. In the future this may not always be the case. It’s possible that in the future all of our software will run in the browser, not natively as an installed application. We call these applications “web apps.” In my opinion, in the future we won’t install apps we will access them.

A web app is an application that is used through a web browser instead of being downloaded and installed onto your PC or device. A web app has all the functionality of an installed application. The only major difference is that to use a web app you need to be connected to the Internet.

You may think that idea is crazy. We aren’t always connected to the Internet, so why would you want to use software that you can’t use when you’re not connected? That’s a good question. However, if you think about many of the things you use a computer for on a regular basis you will find that they require a connection: E-mail, Facebook, twitter, surfing the Internet, searching the Internet, web browsing, downloading, streaming, and a whole lot more all require the Internet. I’d be willing to bet that for most people, the Internet is involved in over 90% of the things they do with a PC.

But to be fair, most of us are used to what we call the hybrid experience; one in which we take advantage of Internet-based content when possible, while relying on local apps during the times we can’t connect via the various devices we might use in our daily lives.

I had an experience recently where the power went out where I live. This power outage affected a major power source for the cellular service provider data towers, so although I had cell service, I had no mobile data. Between having no mobile data and my power being off, which knocked out my DSL connection, I was literally without the Internet.

It was at that time I realized that without the Internet, my notebook was basically a paperweight. Of course that’s not completely true but everything I needed to do in that moment required the Internet. That experience got me to thinking about all the things I do regularly that require the Internet.

I came up with a list, and the only things I use my PC for that don’t require the Internet are writing, editing photos and making videos. And without the Internet, I can’t send or share my writing or photos or videos.

With that in mind, the argument which states that the Internet should not be required for us to use our computers doesn’t hold water. The reality for most of us is that the Internet is a critical part of our everyday experience with our computers.

This Is Where Chrome OS Comes In

Google recently launched Chromebooks in conjunction with Samsung and Acer. Chromebooks are essentially PCs but with the major difference being that Google’s Chrome browser is the only thing installed on the PC.

Google’s vision for Chromebooks is one similar to the one I described. This vision is where everything we do with our PCs happens inside the browser.

This future heavily depends on where the industry takes future versions of HTML and Javascript. As HTML and Javascript advance, we will be able to have more complex software run in our browsers. HTML and Javascript are the fundamental programming languages used to create web sites and web applications today. In this vision, they essentially become some of the most important programming languages in the future.

There is an interesting example currently based on HTML5 called MugTug. If you check out you will see a web app that lets you actually edit photos. All of this is done in the browser and takes advantage of HTML5. MugTug is a great example of a program as powerful as a native application, except that it runs in the browser.

Google has even taken this one step further, announcing recently that their Chrome browser is beta testing support for the C/C++ programming languages. C and C++ are some of the most common programming languages used to create native desktop and OS applications.

In Google’s announcement in their blog they state:

“Native Client allows C and C++ code to be seamlessly executed inside the browser with security restrictions similar to JavaScript. Native Client apps use Pepper, a set of interfaces that provide C and C++ bindings to the capabilities of HTML5. As a result, developers can now leverage their native code libraries and expertise to deliver portable, high performance web apps.”

This is another confirmation that Chrome OS may become a powerful alternate to a native operating system in the future.

Also there is something important with regard to this vision that I don’t see talked about much. Almost every developer we speak to, is simultaneously developing an iOS, Android, and HTML 5 web app at the same time. They believe it is more economical to do all that work up front then maintain over time. This means that at some point in time there will arguably be just as many web apps as native apps in every major app store. We will of course still need some way to discover these web apps, but over time someone will take a leadership stance in this area.

So Where Is Android In This Vision?

Android fits the model of native OS and native apps all needing to be downloaded and installed. Android also is more focused on mobile devices, not traditional PC form factors. However, in this vision I can imagine Chrome phones and Chrome tablets as an alternative to Android phones and Android tablets.

Part of the reason I bring up the longer-term vision for Chrome is because recently Android has come under quite a bit of legal scrutiny. Google is being sued quite heavily over patent violation claims against Android. Many people are watching this very closely because if Google loses these patent lawsuits, Android’s future comes into question. However, in the vision I am laying out, Android may be a shorter-term play for Google, which means even if they lose and Android loses partners, it doesn’t signal the nail in the coffin for Google.

One other point I’ll make on Android is that it’s not going away in the short term—if ever. There’s too much momentum in hardware, software and services that even if additional licensing costs become associated with Android, the vendors will still pay the costs to license Android. My main point is that in this browser-based computing future, Chrome OS presents the longer-term opportunity for Google and their hardware partners.

What interests me about Google’s Chrome browser and its evolution to Chrome OS as its used on things like Chromebooks is how the browser itself was built in a way to take advantage of all of the computer’s hardware. Specifically the browser can take advantage of things that normally only the operating system does, like the GPU and ports like the microphone, media card readers and USB ports.

It is because Chrome is architected this way that I can see it replacing a traditional OS in the future if all of our software moves to the web.

To use a Wayne Gretzky quote and slightly modify it: Android is where the puck is today. Chrome OS is where the puck is going.

Google is leading this effort with devices that take a clamshell notebook design, but in the near future I will not be surprised if we see Chrome devices in a tablet form factor.

Now to be honest, although I believe we are moving in this direction, I am not sure when this vision will become a reality. Many different pieces need to come together, including devices with persistent, reliable and affordable connections to the Internet.

Some times technology moves at the speed of light, and other times it moves very slowly. This is an area where I think it will move slowly, putting us at least five years away and most likely much longer.