Android remains the dominant worldwide mobile operating system on new handsets, but the last few weeks have exposed some disconcerting flaws in Google’s platform. The mobile ad network Chitika said last week U.S. consumers are far more active on devices running Apple’s iOS than on Android gadgets, and Appcelerator recently reported that developer interest in Android is waning while interest in iOS is holding firm. Meanwhile, industry insiders expect increased fragmentation for Android as manufacturers try to follow Amazon’s lead and create their own ecosystems based on the operating system.
Two recent surveys indicate these shortcomings may finally be slowing Android sales: Nielsen last month reported that Android’s U.S. market share had plateaued as Apple’s grew; that news came on the heels of ABI Research’s claim that Android’s worldwide share of smartphone sales had decreased for the first time ever in the fourth quarter of 2011.
That fragmentation, of course, is a huge challenge for Android, creating headaches for both developers and consumers. And monetization remains a problem for Android, as Flurry recently noted, with developers making only 23 cents from Google Play for every dollar they earn in Apple’s App Store. (And it’s worth mentioning that Flurry found Amazon’s Appstore is almost four times more lucrative for developers than Google’s own store.)
Most of this is beyond Google’s control: While its open-source strategy was crucial in Android’s runaway success, it also prevents Google from controlling Android the way Apple controls iOS. So Google should ditch the Android brand and create a separate brand atop its platform – kind of an uber-Android – as Charlie Kindel recently predicted the company will do later this year.
Google’s recent re-branding of its mobile app and content distribution business to Google Play may have been the first step in such a move, jettisoning the Android name in favor of the self-titled brand. The company also announced this week that it will once again circumvent carrier retail channels with the $399 Galaxy Nexus, which will be sold without a service contract directly to consumers through Google Play. And Kindel predicts Google’s upcoming tablet will be dubbed the Google Play, marking yet another step away from the Android brand.
Abandoning the Android brand would enable Google to rise above the morass that threatens the open source platform by creating a superior ecosystem that Google could control absolutely. It would enable Google to determine which of its devices receive platform upgrades, eliminating the uncertainty of carrier- and manufacturer-issued updates. Google could take a page from Apple and begin to vet submissions to Google Play, eliminating the garbage and knock-offs that plague the store and ensuring a far better user experience. Google could use that elite store to push its own content and services rather than accepting just about every piece of content submitted. And it could create a compelling line of hardware (branded Nexus or Play or both) that eschew the co-opted branding and bloatware that inevitably comes with carrier-distributed gadgets.
If this all sounds like Google should “Apple-ize” Android, well, that’s pretty accurate. And it’s true that creating a branded ecosystem atop Android will only further fragment the platform as a whole, just as Amazon has done with its Kindle Fire and Appstore. But the same open source quality that fueled Android’s rise to top has sullied the platform’s reputation among consumers and developers, and Google is powerless to stop the de-valuation of its flagship mobile brand by carriers, manufacturers and content providers. But by building an entire new ecosystem of top-notch mobile content, hardware and services, it could take on Apple with a compelling, elite brand. That would benefit Android as a whole, and it would also give mobile consumers a great new option.