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.