Google's Android market needs Jobsian strongman
Tough iPhone love
Comment One of the most hyped technologies of the last year or two is Google's Android. Based on a modified Linux kernel, Android has been heralded as the future of everything from tablets to TVs – and as a release from the stranglehold that Apple's iPhone has on hearts, minds, and wallets of people everywhere.
Progress since Android was announced in November 2007 has been swift, and it seems that every day new supporters hop aboard to create yet more devices for Android to run on.
With major handset makers, telcos, and even mighty Google offering up Android phones, you'd expect to see a more polished – dare, I say, iPhone-like – approach to the user experience. Tthe Android marketplace still feels like an afterthought compared to the iPhone's App Store.
The Android Marketplace runs a distant second to Apple's App Store in terms of numbers and range of applications and sheer profile. A quick search on tech media research tool ITDatabase.com turned up some 19,545 results for Android and more than 63,000 for iPhone but these are of middling appeal and enjoy little visibility or marketing.
At this point in time, the average consumer – who has proved generally oblivious to what technology they are running or the nuances of their code underneath – is well aware of the Jesus Phone and its variants.
That awareness has come not just from major news outlets but also from Apple's advertisements and TV commercials. Android has a bit of marketing juice – the odd billboard here or there touting Motorola's Droid on Verizon, for example – but has nothing approaching Apple's branding sophistication.
For those who do recognize Android as the operating system for a smartphone, the next logical step is to customize, figuring out what applications you can put onto your new device, where they live and then downloading them. The iPhone drives you into Apple's App Store whereas Android lets you frolic across the greater web.
The web, in theory, is the right way to go, providing distribution and unrestricted access. But it presents a challenge to users who have been trained to engage with their smartphone in the Apple way.
Broadly speaking, having a vast array of distribution points is generally not bad. After all, look at the success of Linux. But mobile phones are not like servers, and the packaging of the operating system and applications is fairly well ingrained into the mobile user mindset.
Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin has suggested that to see the path of Android, one only need to follow the path of Linux, which eventually coalesced into a few major distributions that allowed developers and ISVs to better target customer demand.
The Apple standard
But to reach consumers, there really needs to be consistency in the way that users find and consume applications. Apple has set the standard – for better or worse – with the App Store. Android apps require users to purchase and download only from their device, generally not an issue, but not always the best user experience.
The big question is whether or not the task of building and maintaining an Android app store similar to Apple's store should fall to the Google-borg or whether third-parties such as Motorola or Verizon should take ownership and are capable of offering the breadth, depth and level support needed for a wide variety of applications.
Perhaps connecting your iPhone to a computer is where Apple has found Android's current Achilles Heel. For better or worse, with the iPhone, you know Apple is in charge. With Android, it could be one of a dozen or more companies, from your device manufacturer to a carrier to a startup to Google itself.
Having said that, Android is a promise of things to come, and it will likely leapfrog the iPhone within the next 18 to 24 months – at least on the operating system side. Developers like the tooling, APIs, and possibilities associated with new devices, and many resent Apple's choice of Objective-C on principle alone.
For their part, device manufacturers like the customization capabilities as well as the fact that there is a core kernel that is developed similarly to Linux with a theoretically benevolent Google directing development.
And, while Android lacks Apple's combined polish of hardware, operating system and marketplace, there is historical precedent that suggests being part of the world wide web rather than building a walled garden is the right way to go. Just ask AOL.
On that basis, Android will likely coalesce into just a few versions and continue in general to take market share from RIM, Microsoft, Nokia, and Palm – a move that could easily sound the death knell for the mobile operating systems of any number of companies.
However, market dominance is one thing – actually having consumers like and want to use your device is another. Handset makers and telcos, especially, are not known for their forward thinking. The mobile apps market has been marked by years of mediocre applications and walled gardens that lock in both consumers and developers. The market bread indifference and frustration towards phones and service providers, and that's what made the iPhone seem so revolutionary and appealing.
The challenge for Android, then, is not motoring to some kind of inevitable ubiquity but in corralling the various app stores and marketplaces to make it easier for developers to make money with their own applications and for consumers to find and pay for them.
To achieve that, someone, somewhere has to start taking a cue from Apple's user experience and consistency. ®