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Android drifts as it heads towards 15th birthday

Android drifts as it heads towards 15th birthday

Google’s Android phone operating system has been around for 15 years. It’s been wildly successful in the sense that the majority of the world’s mobile phones run Android.

Yet Android has long been and remains a problem for phone makers. It is even more of a headache for software developers.

Android can be something of a puzzle for users. That’s because there are dozens of versions of Android and many different user interfaces. Android is fragmented.

Android remains fragmented

Things are better today than they were five years ago and better again than a decade ago, but the reason behind that is little comfort to the Android community.

In effect, Android is less fragmented in 2023 because many Android phone makers exited the market. New Zealand consumers can no longer buy phones from Sony-Ericsson, Huawei, LG or HTC. And that’s only the bigger brand names. Many smaller ones have gone too.

One problem with Android is that, despite being, in effect, free to phone makers, few have learned how to make money from Android phones.

Android faces one rival that matters: Apple’s iOS. The operating system that powers the iPhone is not the least bit fragmented.

Apple is a single target

All iPhone users get the same interface. App developers have what amounts to a single target. Before you compose an angry response, that may be a simplification, but it’s not an over-simplification.

The overwhelming majority of iPhone users are on the latest version. Customer upgrade in lockstep when a new iOS comes along. A handful of iPhone customers might stay on older versions, either because they have a seven year-old iPhone that can’t upgrade or because they haven’t got around to it yet.

At most iOS developers might need to maintain and support a handful of iOS versions, and they tend to have much in common between versions that the task isn’t difficult. At least not in the way it can be difficult in the Android world.

Consumers don’t love Android

There’s another consideration to think about here. Consumers prefer iOS by a huge margin. This is more true among younger consumers and is more pronounced in the USA, but the trend is global.

Consumers who choose Apple hardware are far more inclined to spend money on apps and services than Android customers. Add in the challenge of supporting multiple variants and you can see why many developers choose to either avoid Android altogether or treat it as a poor relation.

Phone hardware makers don’t have much choice about fragmentation. Modern phones are slabs of glass and metal or plastic with a near featureless front screen and one or more cameras on the back. There’s not much scope for differentiation. Samsung and a handful of others offer folding phones, but, to date, they have failed to capture the market’s imagination.

Few levers

Which leaves phone makers with few levers to pull. Phones all look much the same on the outside, if they all used a standard version of Android they’d look the same on the metaphorical inside. Samsung needs something to remind customers its pricey phones are distinct from low-cost carrier-brand phones.

Away from Samsung and a few odd exceptions Android phone makers end up competing on price and price alone. Which means they have poor margins. Which means… eventually, like LG or HTC or Sony-Ericsson, they don’t have a sustainable business.

None of these problems are new. This story could have been written any time in the last decade. A loosely similar story was written eight years ago. The only difference is that Apple’s market share is larger today than it was then.

Follow the money

Apple continues to make the bulk of profits from phone hardware. Samsung makes money, but for years it made more money selling screens to Apple than from selling its phone to customers. Beyond those two companies, it’s like trench warfare.

Google is an inscrutable company to outsiders. It’s hard to understand its Android strategy. It needs Android. The operating system gives it the surveillance capitalism entry point it needs to complement and strengthen its search engine.

Every now and then Google does something to help the Android community. There are development tools and other background initiatives. Yet, the company never turns its full focus on Android. It appears unwilling or unable to address the big problems.

Which leaves us in an odd position in 2023. Android remains the most used phone operating system, although you’d be hard pressed to argue it is the most popular. It continues to evolve, there’s competition of sorts, but less than the marketing would have you think.

There will be people reading this, there always are, who will argue it is better than iOS. That can even be true for certain niche definitions of “better”.

Yet Android appears to be drifting. There’s no excitement. Few kids pester their parents to upgrade their iPhones to Androids. There are Android users who have an ideological or emotional objection to Apple, others might be unwilling to move from a technology they have become comfortable with.

The headaches for phone makers and developers are not going away. Nor is Android. But it needs a way out of the trap it finds itself in.