Taking Android mountain by stealth

Android got big in the first place because Google got out of the way and let phone hardware makers do their own thing.

This gives Google a brand problem.

Hardly anyone consciously buys Android. They buy Samsung, Motorola or LG, even Nokia.

In almost every case, Android takes a back seat to a bigger, more important brand experience.

And that’s a headache for Google. It owns the software controlling almost four out of five smartphones and yet plays second fiddle to relative minnows like LG.

Occupy Android

Suddenly this matters because the Android experience is falling behind the iPhone or even the Windows Phone experience.

That statement might sound odd given all the massed ranks of Android users who just hate iOS or Windows Phone. Stick with me here.

My long-term criticism of Android has always been about the poor user experience.

In Android’s first years, Google focused entirely on adding features and putting APIs in place. The company built the Android engine and left user experience to hardware makers who, usually, would add their own software overlays.

Some of that delighted customers. Some confused them.

And just to be awkward, or to prove their independence, some phone makers would ignore Google’s software guidelines.

This meant not every Android app could run on every Android device.

Worse, it made it doubly difficult to upgrade software.

Contrast with iOS

When I criticise Android’s poor user experience, Android supporters tell me how iOS lacks many feature. Or more accurately, they tell me how features Apple is adding to the latest iOS have been in Android for  years.

They are right. Android was there first with a lot of stuff that only arrived in iOS 7 or is coming in iOS 8.

But that’s deliberate. Apple has always focused on delivering the best customer experience. At Apple, customer experience comes first. In Apple’s universe functionality gaps can be filled in later.

Google’s counter strategy

We’ve heard stories of Google asking Samsung and others to rein in their software customisations. We’ve even seen some movement in this direction.

We’ve also seen plain vanilla Google phones, particularly Nexus models.

These moves were only the start.

At this year’s Google IO conference the company struck back, but in a subtle, stealthy way which may not have fully registered with everyone yet.

When Google took the wraps off Android TV, Android Wear and Android Auto it made it clear hardware makers are not allowed to change the user interface. With these new products Google will call all the shots. Hardware makers can add apps and even hardware features, but they can’t play with the user interface.

This already happens with Chromebooks. Despite coming from a variety of hardware brands, most Chromebooks work the same way, they include more or less the same software. The user experience is much the same whoever you buy your Chromebook from.

This isn’t quite Apple’s playbook. That company has 100 percent control over hardware and system software.  But it is almost exactly what Microsoft does with Windows Phone: controls the user experience.

Less freedom for OEMs = better customer experience

By taking back more control, Google can deliver a better customer experience and fix most of the problems plaguing Android. Every Android phone maker and tablet maker, with the possible exception of Samsung will have little choice but to follow Google’s lead, just as PC makers had little choice but to follow Microsoft and Intel in the 1980s and 90s.

Some may switch focus from Android to Windows Phone and Windows tablets. That’ll mean taking their chances against Nokia and Surface. Google holds most of the cards in that game.

Samsung may pull its Tizen OS project out of the back room.

Building Android, not phone brand, loyalty

Google, being Google, probably doesn’t view the customer experience issue as big a problem as the lack of Android customer loyalty. People buy Galaxy devices or Samsung devices, not Android devices.

Fixing that is job number one.

 

4 thoughts on “Taking Android mountain by stealth

  1. I am unsure as to whether I agree with that last statement about Google caring about the Android brand. I don’t think they care as much whether people call it Android or ‘a Samsung’ but I do think they care about the opinion of it nevertheless.

    It’s a shame that they have to go this route to stay at the top. They lose what made me love Android (free and open platform). If only carriers and OEMs could be trusted more but they’ve proven they can’t. Carriers won’t do anything they don’t have to after they’ve taken your money and OEMs basically the same.

    I think Google are going to pull it off and Apple will once again be an also-ran in the history books. If Apple had loosened their grip on their ‘warchest’ a bit maybe they’d’ve stood a chance. Culturing a ‘perfect’ UI/UX works when no one sees it coming, not so much when other companies come to the table and shape the market years before you get yours out. Technology these days isn’t like cars. It is much easier to buy a Toyota after having a Ford than it is to decide you want to jump ship from Microsoft or Apple.

  2. Linux had the same problem with compatibility. It eventually set itself as the only source for the kernels making it so that a program written for Linux would, theoretically, work on any and all versions of Linux and the real strengths of Linux came out. You get the same security and stability and you also get to choose the interface that suits you. Google should be looking to do the same with Android. Keeping compatibility between phones and pads is essential but having different interfaces would be beneficial to the manufacturers.

    Of course, the manufacturers, in the apparent efforts to lock people in to using their software, are actually making life difficult. They’re not maintaining the hardware to compatible standards meaning that it’s difficult to upgrade the software on a device once the manufacturer stops supporting it. My Galaxy Ace (S5839i) got bricked when I tried to upgrade it to Android 4.1 from 2.3.2 and I have some idea as to what I’m doing. Such a thing should not be possible in the same way that it’s not possible to do that to a PC. My old PC started life as a Linux box, got shifted to a Win7 box and then shifted back to Linux when I got my new PC. I should be able to do the same to my phone without fear of destroying it.

    • The problem is the OEMs want you to use their software, and won’t be as open to letting you uninstall theirs and install another OEM’s launcher. Very much unlike Linux where Canonical isn’t locking you into Ubuntu when you buy a Sputnik.

      I see this as two options: either you have separate hardware and software providers – OEMs fight on build quality and price, software providers are separate companies who compete on UI/UX and you can switch whenever you want, much like Nova Launcher and Go Launcher etc now.

      The other option is you try to fully lock in ala Apple on the full stack of hardware and software. Unfortunately this is what most OEMs seem to be trying (funnily enough with an “open” platform in the middle…).

      If the Linux OS market was bigger I would say you might start to see more Android OEM-like behaviour. You won’t get it now for two reasons; most people who use Linux now use it for reasons that go against vendor lock and the market is too small overall. If a billion people were using Linux on their desktops it would be a different picture.

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