Jamie Lendino over at PC Magazine had a great column called “Google’s Android Update Alliance is Already Dead.” I recommend a read of this column in order to get some more context from the handset OEMs and carrier quotes on the subject. The reality is that this alliance was flawed at a fundamental level from the beginning and was destined to failure.
There is an important element to understand about this industry and it comes down to two types of strategies to bring devices to market. The first strategy is a direct to consumer product development approach. This is the strategy most closely followed by Apple, due to the fact that they have their own retail stores and control their own retail presence. Both of those strategic points in Apple’s favor are strengths at a competitive level. In this strategy the end consumer is your customer, they are the ones you are attempting to sell directly to. When a more direct to consumer strategy is employed, a more limited product mix is possible.
The second strategy is a channel strategy. This is the strategy that many take by order of necessity. In this strategy, although devices are made for consumers, the customer is actually the channel, or the retailer and carrier. Device manufacturers actually create products specifically for the channel in the hopes that the channel can sell them to consumers. Device manufacturers are not guaranteed that the channel will sell their device or give them favorable margins on devices sold. Because of this fact, device OEMs must create a device menu in order to give many different channels the opportunity to sell different devices. The other key point in a channel strategy, is that the channel (whether it be a retailer or a carrier) is not interested in selling two products that are too similar to each other or target the same market segment. This is why we see such a heavy device mix in carrier retail for example. I empathize with companies who have to employ a channel strategy because it is very hard and very frustrating–and also very political. However, employing a channel strategy engrains in a device OEM what I call a “ship-and-forget” mentality. This is at a fundamental level why the Android Update Alliance was destined to fail.
This mindset is unfortunate but necessary to employ a successful channel strategy. Companies that make a menu of devices to sell to the channel need to move quickly to the next batch of devices and commit existing development resources to this new batch of devices. This makes supporting legacy devices more difficult due to most of the engineering always having to move to new product development. There are fewer resources, and less priorities frankly, for legacy devices because almost all the focus is on the future not the past. This again is fed by the business model of those who are selling to the channel which yields low margins but requires high volume.
It is also partially Google’s fault because they put updating and supporting devices in the hands of the OEMs. Often this is because the OEMs have changed Android slightly in order to differentiate their handsets, therefore said OEM is responsible for the engineering to get their legacy devices up to speed. It is hard to side with one or the other on this issue. Of course if no one changed Android and left it stock, it would be easier to update quickly. The only problem with that is that there is VERY little differentiation in that world and any differentiation is limited to hardware. This is the sea of sameness I talk frequently about and in the past it led to spec battles and very little innovation.
If you want to see the sea of sameness in action, go to a big box retailer who sells PCs and look at the wall of Windows machines, all running identical software thus the only difference is in hardware. Hardware differentiation alone would be a boring future.
The channel strategy that is employed by many in the industry is a simple truth about how this industry works. It has its plusses but it also has its minuses. Vendors must differentiate, but they also have to cater to the channel. The channel, and horizontal operating system solutions create this sea of sameness due to the nature of the business model.
Everyone from the OEM, to the channel (retailer and carrier), as well as the software platform (Google) have to align for the good of the ecosystem if this is to get any better. The only problem is from what I see so far they are still more dis-aligned than aligned.
So although it was well-intentioned, the channel strategy and lack of Google’s own committing of more resources to assist OEMs is what keeps the Android OS unity a pipe dream.