Why Android’s openness could cause real trouble for Google

It all started a few months ago, when most of the contact information suddenly disappeared from my year-old HTC Incredible. After several excruciating days tinkering with the device and one futile call to Verizon Wireless’ customer service department, I “factory reset” the gadget, wiped it clean and regained my lost contact information, thanks to Verizon’s Backup Assistant. But then it happened again, only worse: Some apps stopped working, including texting.

The problem was that my phone’s memory had been pushed to the limit because for some reason my photos and videos were being stored on the device itself, not the memory card. And removing that content is a nightmare: It wouldn’t sync to my laptop with Verizon’s V Cast Media Manager, frustratingly, and I couldn’t find any other simple way to move the stuff onto my PC. The only “solution” I found was using an app to move files one at a time from the device to the card, where they can be moved to my laptop, an amazingly time-consuming process. So it is with some sadness — and a little relief — that I am departing from Android. Here is why.

Are too many cooks slowing Android?

The problem is that there are simply too many players involved. Google’s mobile operating system is tweaked by HTC for its Sense user interface, which doesn’t seem to play well with Verizon’s kludgy V CAST software or with Microsoft Windows. And there have been consistent miscommunications between my Android-based phone and Verizon’s Backup Assistant, which is supposed to sync with my device every night.

These headaches are the symptoms of the well-documented fragmentation that has long plagued Google’s open-source platform, of course, and Marketing Land’s Danny Sheridan outlined some similar problems in this great piece earlier this week. As Sheridan concedes, those issues haven’t prevented Android from becoming the dominant mobile operating system both in the U.S. and worldwide. But recent comScore data indicates that Android’s growth in the U.S. may be slowing, as this post from Asymco’s Horace Dediu discusses. The U.S.’ share of Android activations has slowed in recent months, Dediu notes, from a cumulative average of 20 percent during the 12-month period ending in October to a recent 12 percent.

This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, and factors like Apple’s launch of the iPhone 4S in October may have played a role. But there is a good chance we are finally seeing Google begin to pay the price of Android’s fragmentation. I think some Android users have become fed up with the incompatibility and inconsistencies of Android and are looking for an alternative — even if that alternative is Apple’s “closed” iOS. A ChangeWave survey from last summer indicated that U.S. consumers were strongly leaning toward purchasing an iPhone over an Android device, and that was just six months after the same survey found the two platforms equally appealing. ChangeWave also reported that 70 percent of iPhone users were “very satisfied” with their purchase, while only half of Android owners said the same.

Fragmentation isn’t the only problem Android faces. A lack of discoverability is an ongoing issue in Android Market, which houses 400,000 apps. Android’s openness enables carriers and manufacturers to load the handsets with bloatware (such as Verizon’s navigation app) that can’t be deleted. And the struggle to police malware in Android Market is an increasing concern for Google. Meanwhile, Apple’s locked-down ecosystem minimizes the risk of malware and bloatware, and proprietary operating systems like Windows Phone and iOS enable a more certain — if more limiting — user experience.

What comes next?

What does that mean? It’s good news for Apple, obviously, whose market share growth slightly outpaced Android’s by 1.3 percent in comScore’s November data. But if Android truly begins to struggle, 2012 might be the year we see the emergence of an unknown like Tizen, a Linux-based open-source OS that received little attention when it was unveiled by the Linux Foundation and LiMo Foundation a few months ago. It is far too early to predict whether Tizen could succeed in the marketplace, but it is clear that there is still room for another major player alongside Apple and Google. For Google to cement its place atop the mobile world, then, it should lean heavily on its manufacturer and carrier partners to make sure Android is as interoperable and easy to use as possible. Because the world of mobile moves very quickly: Just ask RIM.

Question of the week

Will Android’s shortcomings finally hurt its growth in 2012?
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Colin Gibbs

Colin Gibbs

Mobile Curator Gigaom Network

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24 Comments Subscribers to comment
  1. As a mobility technologist for my company I can certainly agree that Android’s fragmentation creates a nightmare in terms of security and supportability. ^^^When you can line up 4 Android phones in a row, all running the same version of the base OS and get 4 different results from the same app, you know you have a problem.^^^

  2. Android will exist. But the mobile OS to watch in 2012 will be windows and meebo (intel)

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