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 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.
Android brand experience
Suddenly this matters because the Android experience is falling behind the iPhone or even the Windows Phone 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 features. 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. There has been 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.