It all started with a Dream. A dream of a free, open-source, and infinitely flexible mobile operating system to revolutionize the smartphone market and to free us from Apple’s walled garden. The little green robot’s been with us for almost 4 years now and in that short amount of time it has become the de-facto mobile operating system. Android, in terms of global shipments, is now the number one mobile operating system in the world. But how did it get that far in such a short amount of time?
Android is free software
Android, as we all know, is free and open-source, making it extremely appealing to manufacturers the world over. Anyone can grab the source, modify it to their liking, then slap it on some shiny new hardware. While evidence suggests that this may change in the future, this is among the main reasons why manufacturers adopted Android so easily. They could customize it a bit, adapt it to their hardware, then license the Google apps from Google, and have a good product that is ready to hit the shelves. This eliminates the costs to developing a new operating system from the ground up and eliminates the licensing fees normally associated with using a third-party operating system such as Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7.
When manufacturers saw that the platform was taking off and that consumers wanted these devices, they jumped on the opportunity, flooding the market with amazing new hardware running newer and newer versions of the OS, most of which had been customized to differentiate one manufacturer’s products from another manufacturer’s. This was the beginning of the Age of Android.
Speed bump: Fragmandroid
So now that we have all these awesome new phones, what happens when El Goog releases a new version of Android? Well, that’s where things get a little messy for our little green friend.
Platform fragmentation has long been an issue with Android. There are many reasons why this is, and few of them are technical. Most of them, however, revolve around the issue of cost vs benefits. Is it practical for the manufacturer to update every device they’ve ever made with the newest versions of Android? No. And that’s where the issue of fragmentation comes in.
Since these manufacturers often use custom overlays to their phone’s Android installs, updates are difficult. It’s not as simple as copying all the related files over to the new source and recompiling. They have to make sure everything works well with the newer version of Android, and this often involves a partial or complete rewrite of the entire UI. This costs a lot of money; developers need to eat too. And even when they do update their phones it doesn’t do much for the manufacturer. They don’t gain any money from it except, maybe, swaying a new customer’s decision to purchase their phone over a competitors on the basis that it’s running a newer and more capable version of Android. Customer loyalty is great in the long run, but it’s difficult to sustain a company on customer loyalty alone.
Android has matured a lot over the years. Newer, more capable hardware and software, more APIs for more complex applications, and boosted performance are all among the improvements made to the platform in its many revisions. But the problem of fragmentation hinders the experience for the end users. Google’s said to be working on controlling this problem by tightening its control over Android while staying true to their open philosophy. I just hope they can do it without discouraging manufacturers and developers.
Freedom from Apple’s walled garden
Android had, and still has, a significant advantage (and disadvantage in the eyes of some) over Apple in a significant area. Apple’s approach with the iPhone was to lock it down and control everything that went into the platform. This meant a polished, but limited, experience for the end user. Something the average user wouldn’t really notice. But the more advanced users were not pleased. No sideloading of applications, no file system access, and no customization options meant endless frustration to these people. Enter Android with the promise of all of those things and more.
Android looked to be a nerd’s wet dream. Essentially a Linux phone with a touch-optimized interface and infinite possibilities for customization, this had nerds everywhere salivating.
The G1 debuted with little fanfare outside the fringe communities of enthusiasts. But it was clear that Android had promise. It just needed better hardware and a good advertising campaign.
Motorola teamed up with Verizon to make the Android of our dreams back in the day. Motorola would supply the hardware, Google would provide the software, and Verizon would force the phone into the limelight using an ad campaign targeted directly where it needed to be for Android to take off. It was aimed specifically at the average consumer. This is what Android needed. This is the key to its mainstream success in the U.S.
The Droid sold ~250,000 units in the first week. Verizon’s ad campaign had succeeded and Android was now mainstream. Now what?
Nexus One: A story of broken dreams
Not all was well in Androidland, however. As Google debuted its Nexus One “superphone,” the brunt of advertising money was elsewhere in Droidville. This meant that consumers had no way of knowing anything about the “Google Phone.” To their credit, Google did try very hard with ads placed all over the internet. Unfortunately, most consumers scan right over banner ads, especially when they are underwhelming.
Google’s Nexus One banner ads were plain and easy to miss
To make matters worse, Google opted not to issue demo units to carrier retail stores. Turns out, people like to try products out before they lay down $200-500. The phone was only available through their web store, which was great for enthusiasts but terrible for the average consumer. The Nexus One was revolutionary. It was Google’s baby. But sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. Google couldn’t appeal to the masses and thus they were ignored. With a very underwhelming 20,000 units sold in the first week and 135,000 units sold in the first 74 days, sales petered out and the Nexus One would be discontinued before the launch of the long-awaited CDMA model.
Android in 2011
Android now has now forked into two branches. 3.0 “Honeycomb” and 2.3-2.4 “Gingerbread.” Honeycomb was intended to run solely on tablets; a market that exploded into popularity with the introduction of Apple’s iPad. Gingerbread is targeted toward phones, with the familiar Android interface along with some minor upgrades. Though updates have been slow, they are slowly trickling down to last year’s hardware and new manifestations are appearing every week.
Android’s explosive growth has resulted in a whole new breed of market conflict. Manufacturers are fighting over who can pack the most tech into the smallest package. As a result, we have superphones that can easily overpower the average laptop from just a decade ago running Android. These phones allow us to stay connected anywhere we can get a signal, some even have 4G capabilities so we can get connection speeds that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.
Meanwhile, in the tablet market, Android is growing a bit slower in the tablet market. The Motorola XOOM, Honeycomb’s debut hardware, has not been doing so well against the iPad 2 juggernaut. The iPad 2 has the mindshare, advertising dollars, and a vast pool of existing customers from which to draw sales. Google and their partners will have to step up their game to face the elephant in the room if they want to win in this market.
The future is wild
Expect to see more Android 2.3/2.4 phones coming out in the coming months. More dual-core, qHD display-sporting, 3D-capable superphones are destined to bombard us in 2011, and quad-core chipsets are slated for 2012.
Yes, it is indeed a great time to be an Android fan. Thank you, Google, for the gift of Android. And thank you, manufacturers and third-party devs that have made the platform what it is today.