How Google Should Fix Android

Android logoIt’s time for Google to step up and take charge of the Android platform it has created.

I know this sounds odd. By at least one standard, Android is a runaway success. It is by far the world’s most popular smartphone software standard and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. But in many other ways, the platform is a mess. If Apple’s iOS is the good child, a little too neat and a bit too tightly wound, Android is the child raised by wolves, undisciplined and unpredictable.

Android’s most fervent defenders, from whom I’m sure I will hear shortly, rather like things this way. The great variety of available hardware and the openness of the software to modification are among Android’s top attractions to folks who love tinkering with their devices. But at the same time, the fragmentation is keeping Android from reaching its full potential, both by denying many customers the latest software and by making life difficult for developers.

Ownership lacking. A big problem is that Google owns Android, but fails to take full ownership of it. The software is free for anyone who wants to use it. Authorized users who adhere to some fairly loose standards get important perks, including Google services, access to Google Play, and the use of Android branding. (I’m really not concerned here with other uses, such as the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook.) The freedom given to OEMs yields both innovation and chaos.

Manufacturers are free to choose from a wide variety of processor and graphics combinations, with systems from Qualcomm, NVIDIA, Texas Instruments, Samsung, and most recently Intel in use. The software must also support a wide variety of display types, sizes, and resolution. This prohibits the sort of very tight, super-efficient hardware-software integration that Apple achieves in iOS and that Microsoft, to a somewhat lesser degree, seems to be striving for in Windows Phone.

A bigger problem is the latitude OEMs have to modify the software. Almost all major Android OEMs have provided their own tweaks to the user experience, with only the Google-designated Nexus guaranteeing a “pure” Android experience.

Whether the software modifications required both to support a range of hardware choices and varied user experiences are good or bad, they have enormously complicated Google’s task in keeping the software platform unified. Operating system updates take many months to roll out and a lot of phones are never upgrades from the major OS version they shipped with. This by now familiar table tells the story.

Version Codename API Distribution
1.5 Cupcake 3   0.1%
1.6 Donut 4   0.4%
2.1 Eclair 7   3.4%
2.2 Froyo 8 12.9%
2.3 – 2.3.2 Gingerbread 9   0.3%
2.3.3 – 2.3.7 10 55.5%
3.1 Honeycomb 12   0.4%
3.2 13   1.5%
4.0.3 – 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich 15 23.7%
4.1 Jelly Bean 16   1.8%
Data: Google, October 1, 2012


The Moto Mystery. At one point it looked like Google’s $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility was a serious bid to take ownership of Android. In fact, there were widespread fears  that Moto’s position as Google’s “house” OEM would give it a tremendous advantage over competitors such as Samsung and HTC.

But far from using Moto to dominate the Android market, Google has not even used it to demonstrate leadership. It has just released new Droid models that run on the superseded Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android. And it committed the cardinal sin of declaring that purchasers of its Atrix phones would not receive a promised upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich, leaving them stuck with the ancient Gingerbread.

Buyers of an iPhone or iPad know they will get the latest version of iOS and that it will be updated, up to the limits of the hardware, for at least three years (the one notable exception being the 2 ½-year-old original iPad, which was dropped from iOS 6.0.) Android buyers are likely to get a new device with software that is already obsolete, with possibly a promise of an upgrade that may or may not be honored.

Android’s biggest fans aren’t going to like this, but what Google should do is rein in Android’s freedom in the interests of a more unified platform. On the hardware side, Google doesn’t have to go as far as Apple and maybe not as far as Microsoft, which is limiting Windows Phone 8 OEMs to a single system-on-chip family and has imposed other significant design restrictions.

Google should also put much tighter limits on the ability of manufacturers to modify the basic Android software. It’s not clear that any of the modifications have improved the Android user experience significantly and very clear that they are a major impediment to timely upgrade of existing devices.

Finally, Google should require an enforceable pledge that manufacturers will supply timely operating system updates—say within three months of release—to all devices for a minimum of two years after sale.

The result of tighter limits on manufacturers would mean less choice for consumers. But there will be a payoff in remedying an environment that software developers find difficult, hostile, and a very tough place to make a living. Android today offers devices that are superior, at least in specifications, to the iPhone. But the app experience is definitely worse in terms of both comprehensiveness and quality. Reducing the fragmentation of the platform could alter the landscape for developers, making Android more attractive and improving the experience for users. That’s a tradeoff worth making.



The One Feature I Still Want From My Smart Phone

I love smart devices and more to the point I love the potential for smart devices. At the core of my work as an analyst I try to the best of my ability to look at what smart devices do today but to also look at what they may become in the future. I like to look at technologies, products, solutions, etc., and analyze their future potential in light of their present value. It is with this mindset that I have been taking on an experiment I have not done in quite some time.

Since attending Google I/O I have been using as my primary smart phone the Google Nexus running the latest Android OS Jelly Bean. When I get new Android devices, and I get many, I can generally only stand using them as my main smart phone for about a week. My patience runs thin with Android due to the role my smart phone plays in my professional life. The focus of this column is not entirely on my Android experience as I intend to write one just on that subject. But I have been using the Google Nexus with Jelly Bean for almost two months now and it is the first time in a very long while that I have not felt the need to rush back to my iPhone. The last time that happened was with the very first Google Nexus.

I still have my gripes, but the fact I have been able to integrate Android into my life for this long is saying something in my opinion. However, there is one new feature Google has developed with Jelly Bean that has thoroughly piqued my interest.

Google Now and the Anticipation Engine

The feature that Google has developed that has not only piqued my interest but given me quite a bit of food for thought around the potential of smart devices in the future is Google Now. Google positions Google Now as a feature that gives you just the right information at just the right time. The emphasis of this feature is contextually relevant information but it runs much deeper than that.

At the core Google Now learns about key habits on top of attempting to present contextually relevant information. The goal being to present at a glance timely and contextually relevant information. We have written before about this concept of glance-able information and we believe its future is bright.

At a much higher level, Google Now has made me think about something I had trouble articulating before. Namely the one feature I have been wanting as a part of my smart devices overall potential. The feature I speak of is anticipation.

Amazingly somewhere in the core of Jelly Bean and Google Now lies the framework to begin building an anticipation engine. With Jelly Bean we are experiencing the ground level of this foundation and I have found some very interesting examples of its value and potential.

One example is how Google Now looks at my calendar and as long as a location is included in my appointment details, I can launch Google Now at any time and see real time traffic to my next meeting location. I can also simply click from the appointment Google Now card to get navigation to that appointment from my current location. More interestingly, Google Now will alert me via a notification when the is appropriate time to leave for my next appointment based on real time and timely traffic analysis. I found this to be extremely useful.

Another interesting example is related to search. Regardless of what browser I am using, if I am logged into my Google account, when I search for things on Google interesting things start to happen in Google Now. For example my wife and I were recently in the market for a new family car. She started searching for local car dealerships on my notebook using Google. A few minutes later I happened to pull up Google Now on my phone and the top Google Now cards presented to me were map cards including traffic information to all three local car dealerships she had just looked up. I had no idea she was searching for this information so when I asked her why I was seeing directions to Gilroy Toyota on my phone she replied “that’s weird I just looked up Gilroy Toyota on your computer.”

As I further experimented with this I found it quite interesting to search for things like restaurants or other locations either on my notebook using Google or the Nexus itself and know that I could easily jump from that search to Google Now and get exact directions or other information related to that location quickly and easily without having to enter in any more information. Once I started integrating this into my search flow it became habit to utilize the information at a glance Google Now presents and I again found it extremely useful.

As I stated, we are observing the beginning of this anticipation engine concept. There are many ways I would love to see this advance. For example, related to the traffic information, I would love it if my smart device knew not only where I was headed but who I was meeting with. This way if I happened to be hitting traffic on the way to a meeting my smart device could anticipate my time frame and if I happen to be running late present me with the option to email or text those I am meeting with and alert them that I may be running a few minutes late.

There are more examples than I have time to get into of how this anticipation engine has been changing how I think about the usefulness of smart devices going forward. But I am convinced that Google is onto something with this and I am excited to see where it goes.

How Android Raises the Experience Bar with Nexus 7

As a technology insider who has actually planned, developed, and launched products, I have always believed it was important to spend inordinate amount of time living with new and emerging technology products.  Only this way, can you get the “feel” of a product; where it is and where the category is headed.  With regards to Android tablets, I have lived with every version of operating system since inception on 10” and 7” tablets. For every Android tablet version, I added every single personal and business account and used it as I would expect general and advanced users to use it.  While I had experienced some very positive things about each Android tablet version, whenever I held it to the iPad, it just didn’t compare.  Either my preferred apps weren’t available, the content I wanted was missing, or it just didn’t “feel” right.  After using the Google Nexus 7 for a few days, I can say the experience is solid and a lot of fun, something I have never before said about an Android tablet.

Why Non-iPads didn’t Sell Well

We must first understand Google’s previous missteps with Android tablets to fully appreciate how far they have come with the Nexus 7.  While I penned this post a year ago outlining why Android tablets weren’t selling well, let me net it out for you.  Non-iPads haven’t sold well over the last year because:

  • tablets were sold with incomplete collections or no available movies, music, TV, books, and games
  • tablets were sold with minimal applications optimized for the platform
  • tablets were released with unusable features like LTE, SD cards, and USB ports
  • tablets didn’t “feel’ good as there were stutters and sputters
  • with all the issues above, most 10” tablets were sold at the same price as the iPad

Think about the horrible stories consumers who paid full price for an HP Touchpad, Motorola Xoom, or BlackBerry PlayBook tell their friends and colleagues today.  Given tablets are a new category and still a “considered” purchase, everything other than the iPad was considered risky, particularly for the non-techie consumer.

So why will the outcome for the Nexus 7 be any different? Well, it’s all about its integrated and holistic experience.

Nexus 7 is a Big Phone with Access to 600,000 Phone Apps

No one doubts that Google’s Android has been successful in smartphones.  They’ve been so good, in fact, that Android even eclipses iOS in market share.  This is why it’s so important to understand the implications of Google choosing the phone metaphor for the Nexus 7 as its it’s all about apps.  Even today, Android tablets apps are counted in the hundreds and iPad tablet apps are in the hundreds of thousands.  Apps and content are to tablets as roads are to a car, and consumers have access to at least 600,000 of these Android apps.  It’s not only about leveraging the phone app ecosystem as the HTC Flyer were phone-based 7” tablets and didn’t exactly set the world on fire in sales.

Nexus 7 Uses State of the Art Hardware and Software

I liked my Kindle Fire when I first got it, but in reality, I was most impressed with the price versus the iPad than the experience. Over time, my Kindle just sat in my drawer at home and I used my iPad 2 then the iPad 3.  I stopped using my Kindle because the web and mail experience were just so pathetically slow, and quite frankly I got tired of staring at pixels as I am very near-sighted.  I attribute this to the cheaper hardware, a much older Android 2.3, a slow browser for complex sites, and a lower resolution display.  I must reinforce, though, it was at less than half the price of the iPad 2 when it shipped and millions looked the other way as they were just happy to have a tablet.

The Nexus 7 uses state of the art hardware and software and at least for 6 months, buyers won’t have too many levels of remorse. The two main drivers of the experience are Android Jelly Bean and the NVIDIA’s Tegra 3. Jelly Bean, the latest Android OS, adds a tremendous amount of new features but, in short, enable:

  • Project Butter which doubles the UI speed to 60fps so Android finally feels responsive
  • fully customizable widgets at any size the user chooses
  • voice search and dictation that actually works, as Google moved much of the logic and dictionary back to the client and off of the cloud
  • fully customizable notifications, to see just what you want to see and very little of what you don’t want to see
  • Google Now, their first intelligent agent

The NVIDIA Tegra 3 SOC is just as impressive as it has:

  • quad core processor clocked at 1.3Ghz which speeds up tabbed browsing, background tasks, widgets, task switching, multitasking, installing apps, etc.
  • 5th battery saver core which operates in idle mode, which saves battery life
  • GeForce graphics with 12 cores clocked at 416MHz to play the highest-end Android games and HD video

When you add these features to the 7”, 1280×800 (216 PPI) display, you get a very solid experience that just “feels” good.

It’s All About the Experience

As the rest of the phone and tablet industry has painfully learned from Apple, it is about the delivering the holistic and integrated experience between software and hardware, not the ingredients that make it up.  The Nexus does deliver a good, holistic experience, and not just at a certain price point.  While what defines as “good experiences” are very personal, here are many of the experience points I believe will be universally appreciated:

  • light enough to comfortably hold in one hand and small enough to put in a coat, cargo pant pocket or purse
  • the UI “feels” fluid and very fast
  • cannot see any pixels which can distract from the visual experience, particularly when using in bed or with near-sighted users who hold the tablet near their face
  • the tabbed browsing is very fast, focuses well on desktop-sized sites, and bookmarks sync with desktop Chrome
  • the apps and content users want will be available, at least in most countries
  • email is full-featured and very fast, with no lag to delete, create, or linking to web sites
  • notifications are subtle, non-invasive, and speedy to resolve
  • live tiles are fully customizable and save time to see content, even eliminating the need in many cases to open an app like email or calendar
  • with multiple apps running in the background with data feeds updating, it still feels smooth

The holistic experience is greater than just the sum of its piece parts, a first for Android tablets.

Nexus 7 Significantly Raises the Android Tablet Experience

As Ben Bajarin pointed out here, usage models will differ between 7” and 10” tablets. One thing I must add is that like the Fire, the Nexus 7 will pull some potential sales away from the iPad if Apple does nothing.  This is an element that many fail to recognize.  The analogy I will use to show this is between sedans and minivans.  If minivans had never been introduced, sedans would have sold more.  In parallel, without a Nexus 7, Apple would sell more iPads, even if they aren’t the same exact usage models or price points.

Will Apple roll over and let Google and Android slow down its march toward digital dominance?  Probably not, as I do expect Apple to introduce a 7” tablet for many reasons and also as Apple laid out at WWDC, iOS 6 is very compelling, especially when connected with other Apple devices.  Today, the broad tech ecosystem and investors see Apple as invincible, understandable as they have plowed over many of the largest companies in tech.  If Google and Android start to gain credibility in the tablet space, what message will that send about invincibility?  Apple needs to stop Google in their tracks and remove all of the oxygen during the holidays to maintain its dominant status.

One thing for certain is that the Nexus 7 and Jelly Bean significantly raise the bar for the Android tablet experience, something that has been absent for 18 months.

Android’s 7-Inch Tablet Future

It wasn’t a secret that Google was going to announce a 7-inch Nexus tablet made by Asus and running Nvidia’s Tegra 3 chipset. And announce it Google did yesterday to much applause and fan fare. As we and a great many anticipated the tablet is designed as pure media tablet rather than a general purpose tablet like the iPad. As we watched the demo it became clear the Nexus 7 is targeted right at the Kindle Fire and nothing else.

I have been thinking a lot about what Android’s future in tablets may hold and I believe we now have the answer. Android’s sweet spot for tablets may be 7-inch pure media and entertainment slates. These devices will be built and optimized specifically with entertainment not productivity in mind. They will also be very low cost and derive a significant amount of value from cloud services. This also fits right in line with Google branding their store “Play.”

This makes sense if you think about the fact that the most successful Android tablet to date, the Kindle Fire, is a 7-inch pure media tablet. With the iPad, and now on the eve of Windows 8 tablets all targeting the 9.7 to 10.1 tablet screen sizes with more general purpose tablet strategies, I anticipate the larger screen Android tablets to struggle.

Android has struggled as a tablet solution in the general purpose segment due to the immature nature of Google’s tablet ecosystem. Apple remains dominant in this area and it seems like many firms strategies are to avoid competing with Apple entirely. This is clearly the direction Google is taking with the Nexus 7.

With that context I want to point out two areas important for this segment. One that favors Amazon and one that favors the Nexus 7.

Cloud Services and Consumer Trust
The Kindle Fire commerce ecosystem both in terms of digital media and consumers trust in Amazon as a commerce vendor are key areas where Amazon has an advantage of the Google right now. Amazon has over 100 million credit cards of consumers on file who all trust Amazon as a vendor. I don’t believe Google has released how many accounts they hold but I guarantee you it isn’t nearly as many as Amazon, or Apple for that matter.

Amazon has a more mature ecosystem when it comes to digital media and consumer trust for commerce. This is an area Google is attempting to strengthen with the Nexus 7. During the announcement of the Nexus 7 the statement kept being made that the device was built for the Google Play store. Google is clearly hoping that this device will generate more trust for their commerce platform and strengthen their commerce ecosystem.

This is an area where Google 7″ tablets may have an advantage over the Kindle Fire. Google has not yet stated when or if the Nexus 7 will ever appear in retail but you know other OEM will come out with 7″ media tablets who will get them in retail.

Retailers have been understandably conscience of Amazon’s commerce strategy with the Fire being potentially disruptive to their own brick and mortar store strategy. If that trend continues you can imagine more retailers not carrying the Kindle Fire and filling that hole with other OEMs Android 7″ media tablets.

To the extent that retail will be important for this segment the advantage goes to Google in this area.

I am not sure the extent the tablet market is ready to segment into specialty tablets but if they keep their prices low and overall time investment low then I think they have a chance to become companion media devices.

Of course if Apple jumps into this segment with a 7″ tablet I will have to re-consider some positions I am taking currently. However, if Apple does this it will only validate the 7″ media tablet segment at which point I would expect OEM investments in the category to ramp extremely quickly.

Google Created the Mess and Now Must Fix Android Tablets

Android for phones by any measure has been a success, while Android for “premium” tablets by every measure has been a disaster.  According to IDC, the iPad held 55% market share of all tablets in Q4 2011.  When you remove lower end tablets like the Fire and Nook and leave "premium" tablets at $399+, best case Android has approximately 13% market share, leaving Apple with 87% share.  This incorporates sales from some very nice Android tablets from Samsung and ASUS.  This is beginning to appear like the iPod market where Apple is squeezing every ounce of life out of the premium competition.  So who is to blame for the fiasco and who needs to fix it?  The responsibility lies squarely on the back of Google who in turn needs to fix the problem.

I was very excited about Android the first day I learned about it in 2005.  The market needed another strong choice for client operating systems to ensure the highest growth as Linux just wasn’t making headway. I bought the  T-Mobile G1 Android phone in October  2008, the Google Nexus One in January 2010 and many more Android phones including the HTC EVO 4G, the Motorola Atrix, and more after that.  The phone apps were there, more importantly the popular ones.  While the experience wasn’t as fluid as the iPhone, I and many others appreciated the openness, notifications, and live screens.  While the market was very excited about Android phones, it was a completely different story for tablets.
The first looks at Android for tablets, aka "Honeycomb" were amazing. Honeycomb, on paper and in demos, did almost everything better than the iPad. The interface was incredible and looked three dimensional and “Tron”-like. Multitasking, notifications, Flash video support, SD storage and Live Screens looked great.  The Motorola XOOM at CES 2011 won many awards including CES’s "Best of Show Award."  The anticipation mounted and the ecosystem was excited…. until it actually shipped.
As I explored here, I show that the XOOM was slow, buggy, without many apps, without Flash, without SD card support, and sold at a $300 premium to the iPad at $799. New models and prices were introduced starting at $379 seven months later.  Needless to say, it was a complete disaster. This was followed by Samsung with the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in June 2011 starting at $499.  This tablet experienced a similar fate as the XOOM but not as pronounced because it more quickly moved to Android 3.2.  The best premium Android tablet out there was and still is the ASUS Transformer Prime with its optional keyboard, but it also struggled because of Google’s operating system.  Google then released Android 4.0, aka "Ice Cream Sandwich" which didn’t add meaningful features for tablets, but instead aligned the application development environment between phone, tablet, and TV.  Android 4.0 tablets missed the holiday selling season and didn’t sell many at all compared to the iPad.
In summary, the following are the characteristics of what Google allowed to be introduced into the premium Android tablet market place:
  • buggy with crashes
  • slow interface
  • few tablet optimized applications
  • few services at launch for music, books, and movies
  • unfinished features
  • price points on top or higher than market leader Apple with lesser experience
  • missing key consumer retail time frames
So why do I place this primarily upon the shoulders of Google and not the brands, retailers, or component suppliers?  It’s about leadership.  If Google had fully understood what they were walking into, they should have:
  • waited to release Android 3.0 until it was feature complete.
  • waited to release Android 3.0 until there were at least 100 optimized, popular applications.
  • waited to release Android 3.0 until it had full support for movie, music and book services
  • waited to release Android 3.0 until there were greater levels of application compatibility issues that resulted in crashes.
  • instituted some tighter marketing management of hero SKUs to assure their experience was flawless

The result of Google allowing Android tablets out the door before it was fully baked is that the operating system is now viewed by most as a liability as opposed to an asset. Every major tablet maker that I’ve talked to loses money on premium Android tablets in a big way.  Also, anyone’s brand associated with the Android tablets has been marked as well. Motorola and Samsung both had premiere brands but I believe has been sullied by their association with Android for tablets.

Google’s reaction to all of this was to buy a hardware company (Motorola) versus working even more closely with their partners like ASUS and Samsung. Additionally, it’s rumored that Google will introduce their own Google branded tablet which will alienate Google all that much more.  Does the Google brand lend a cachet’ to the equation?  Absolutely not.

All of these issues and confusion benefits Microsoft right now. What was previously considered a free ride from Google with its "free" operating system now has turned OEMs directly into the arms of Microsoft and Windows 8 for tablet.  What a turn of events over the last 18 months.  The pandemonium isn’t over yet.  With undoubtedly more information coming out at this year’s Google I/O, Google is planning Android 5.0 which I am sure will be positioned as the savior of Android for tablets.
The problem is that there’s no savior in sight for Android on premium tablets.  We all know Android sells at $199 without much or any hardware profit, but how about $499 where the entire ecosystem can make money?  Google needs to seriously reconsider everything they are doing with  for tablets starting now because nothing else is working.  The new plan needs to fully account for the needs of the silicon partners, ODMs, OEMs, channel partners, application developers and most importantly, the end user.  It needs to find an entirely new name, too, because the Android name has been thoroughly destroyed in the high end tablet market. 
It’s time to stop treating Android for tablets like a hobby and start treating it more like a business.