Cleaning Up the Android Fragments

Compare and contrast ads for Apple’s iOS/iPhone/iPad and ads for Google’s Android.

The Apple ads center visually on products themselves. The Apples ads just linger on showing the Apple hardware and software in use. Apple believes that the products speak for themselves and all Apple has to do is show the products in action. Basically, the ads just say, “Here’s our stuff. Isn’t it neat?” This works because the Apple products are finely tuned by a focused and discipline design, production and support system. There is a definitive iPhone, a definitive iPad and a definitive iOS operating system.

The Android ads by contrast don’t show the actual devices or Android itself in use. They are not Android specific at all. They might as well be snippets cut from some Sci-Fi movie or video game. The actual Android products are largely hidden. Instead of showing the hardware and software in action, they instead nearly try to associate the Android brand with cool and exciting Sci-Fi imagery.

Most Android ads, regardless of who makes them, fit this pattern. Android devices are seldom seen, when seen they seldom hold prolonged focus and are seldom seen in use.  Basically, the ads say, “Look at the girl in leather fighting robots! That’s cool right? So, Android must be cool too!”

The two different ad styles reveal the problem with fragmentation that Google faces in making Android a trusted, respected and widely adopted OS brand.

I post to StackOverflow, a site/community for answering technical programming questions. One of my highest rated answers addressed the question of which mobile OS a startup should target. Back in Oct 09 I observed:

As near as I can tell, Android isn’t actually a platform but more like a loose standard. Each phone vendor can customize it to a high degree so there doesn’t seem to be a means by which you can write a single app and know it will run on all Android phones. That will cause major market fragmentation so even if Android takes off big time that doesn’t mean that every developer, especially small developers, will be able to sell to the entire installed base.
Long term, open platforms (like contemporary PCs) present major problems for small developers. There is no intellectual property protection so developers who don’t have large institutional customers they can sue can’t prevent piracy. Security will become a major issues as black hats target people’s phones. There will be a huge number of crappy or actually fraudulent apps cranked out that make end users leery of buying software from a vendor they don’t recognize. This means small developers will have a hard time breaking into the market.
One of my professors in college told me something that has proven true in my 20+ years in the computer industry: The major strength of every design is also its critical weakness and vice versa. The very things that make open platforms attractive to developers and customers are also the same things that will cause them major problems. The very things that turn developers off about closed platforms are the things that provide the greatest benefit to developers long term. Having a closed platform’s vendor vet every app slows down acceptance and limits choice but improves overall quality, security and consumer trust. And so on…

My predictions of two years ago (a long time in the computer world) have largely come to pass. The Android market has fragmented into different software versions and wildly differing hardware. While this provides benefits, it is also creating problems for Android users, developers and Google’s marketing department.

The fragmentation means that neither Google nor anyone else can make an Apple-like Android ad because there is no real, integral “Android” OS to show off nor any impressive hardware specific to the Android platform. They have no hardware or software they can make the sole star of an ad so instead they are reduced to running ads that merely create positive emotional associations with the Android brand.

That same lack of focus that frustrate the guys in marketing makes it hard for developers and hardware manufactures to create functional and strongly branded software and hardware for the Android platform. That weak branding in turn makes it makes it hard for end user to understand exactly what capabilities any particular Android device has or what software or accessory hardware will work with it.

None of this means Android is or ever will be, a failure. I fully expect Android to be a major, if not the major mobile platform. However, I don’t think Android will ever be viewed as the best mobile platform. The inherent tradeoffs and compromises necessary to interoperate with so widely varying hardware and software means that Android will always be the “eh, good enough,” mobile platform.

By contrast,  Apple and those who develop for Apple platforms, will always have the luxury of fine tuning their products to standardized hardware and system software which themselves are equally fine tuned. The focused Apple model will always provide a higher level of developer and user experience than Android’s scatter-shot model. That’s why I think Apple has little to worry about as long as it keeps its quality up.

I don’t think we will ever see an iOS/iPhone/iPad “killer” simply because no one else seems capable or willing to make the design and ecosystem tradeoffs that Apple makes. The common impulse always seems to be to go for quantity instead of quality even though people will pay for quality. In order for another company to get to the level where the company’s products seriously threaten Apple’s dominance and/or profitability, they will have to deny the common impulse and make the same design and ecosystem tradeoffs that Apple makes.

So, far, there are no signs that anyone will.

11 thoughts on “Cleaning Up the Android Fragments”

  1. Robert Schwartz,

    Android has a long and successful life ahead of it, because Apple will not allow p0rn apps.

    Porn on the Android is actually a big draw. I was surprised how big an influence this appears to be.

    On the other hand, parents, schools and businesses don’t have to worry about porn showing up in iOS apps. Porn is also a primary vector for malware.

    Like I said things cut both ways.

  2. Apple can continue to play the game as long as its products don’t have an order of magnitude price premium over the open platforms it competes with.

    An overlooked aspect of Jobs’ turnaround effort was his switch away from purely Apple proprietary hardware to increasing amounts of commodity PC hardware. The original iMac featured the most aggressive use of USB 1.0, an interface developed by Intel, in the entire hardware industry. I had a PC motherboard with a USB connector as early as 1996 but there wasn’t a lot of things to connect to it until the iMac stimulated the growth of a USB peripheral ecosystem in both the teeny Mac market and the larger PC market. The penultimate and decisive move was the long foreseen switch from the PowerPC processor architecture to the Intel x86 architecture with its larger economies of scale.

    Apple even selectively open sourced the kernel and UNIX base system of OS X as the Darwin system but kept control of the true strategic hardware and software choke points by keeping an iron grip on the firmware and UI code. This switch allowed Apple to reduce the cost of its hardware while it concentrated on keeping a price premium over PCs with its value-adds of design and user friendliness. The strategy was probably pioneered at NeXT where the operating system was built on the Mach kernel and other off-the-shelf technologies.

    Apple has followed a similar pattern with its embedded products by selectively marrying third-party platforms like ARM with its own secret sauce.

  3. Plus I am reading that with the purchase of Motorola’s phone division, many of Google’s Android customers are viewing Google with some suspicion – rightfully so – are they giving the new releases to themselves first?

    Job’s desire to control the hardware with his software has been both Apple;’s strength and weakness. That’s why Windows grabbed 90% of the market – let anyone build the computer; we just want to sell the software.

    For much less.

    Of course, with this approach – with hardware out of Microsoft’s control – somethings things don’t run as they should.

    But Apple has been way back in the race.

    Well, time to watch a rerun of Two and a Half men.

  4. And now out of left field comes Windows Phone.

    I know what you’re thinking: “too little, too late.” Nonetheless, I expect Microsoft to own a very big chunk of the smart phone market over the next five years, marginalizing Android and probably equaling or surpassing iOS in market share.

    It is no coincidence that Microsoft has chosen a middle path between Apple’s cathedral and Google’s bazaar. It’s not exactly a visionary strategy, and the platform’s first year on the market could charitably be described as “unexceptional”, but I expect it to be brutally effective in the long run.

    Stir in Nokia’s make-or-break switchover, and you have a lot of people who have a lot of experience at moving a lot of units.

    This is entirely in keeping with Shannon’s professor’s observation that a design’s greatest strength and weakness are one and the same. The fact that Windows Phone is genuinely innovative in some ways is its biggest market risk. Conversely, its most predictable and “me too” elements will be the the biggest contributor to its ubiquity.

    The degree to which this will piss off certain people is going to be epic.

  5. I’m still ticked that Palm/HP’s WebOS never amounted to anything. It’s the smoothest sleekest OS I’ve ever seen and I loath to surrender my Pre because of it.

  6. Sebit,

    I expect Microsoft to own a very big chunk of the smart phone market over the next five years, marginalizing Android and probably equaling or surpassing iOS in market share

    I don’t think so. The corner stone of Microsoft’s success has been the ability of Microsofts OSs to connect users to big databases. Apple and other competitors got marginalized precisely because they failed to provide the same level of functionality. Microsoft was able to rope in everyone to use MS software because they could provide interoperability in accessing the data. People would by PCs and DOS/Windows just for that and MS had a license to print money.

    With everything moving to “the cloud” the pressure to serve data in a platform independent manner will just increase. People expect to view the exact same data on their CPUs, their smart phones, their pad/tablets, their TVs etc. Microsoft just doesn’t have an edge in platform neutral data serving. They’ve always relied on being able to force users to use Microsoft OSs, apps and by extension PC computers.

    Windows Mobile is a competent offering but it doesn’t offer anything that the other mobile OSs don’t. As such it has no intrinsic advantage and MS doesn’t know how to operate in an environment where they don’t hold all the aces. It’s been 30 years since MS was just another company but in the mobile market that exactly where they find themselves.

    I haven’t seen any signs that the company is flexible enough to adapt. I think it will fade away into the background just like IBM did.

  7. With a market share of over 50% and climbing Android is kicking ass and taking names.

    It’s Linux folks. It is Google’s version of a Linux phone OS. It’s pretty easy as Linux runs everywhere and is open for you to do whatever you want, well you will need to deal with the GPL of course.

    I have my phone, a very fine Samsung Galaxy S 2, running the Cyanogen compilation of the latest available Android release and will move to Ice Cream Sandwich when it’s released. I love computers so Linux has been my toy for many years now. Because I love computers I will not use or recommend Apple products or software. Macs, OS X and IOS are for people who hate and fear computers which may be why they have done so well. ;)

  8. Shannon,

    Windows Mobile is a competent offering but it doesn’t offer anything that the other mobile OSs don’t.

    I think the word “competent” is actually on the generous side when describing Windows Mobile in comparison to Android or iOS, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Windows Phone 7, which has been on the market for about a year now, is an entirely new platform that doesn’t even run Windows Mobile apps.

    Windows Phone does indeed offer some unique innovations. Although it doesn’t have much mind share yet, and hasn’t been marketed heavily, it has many signs of a sleeper hit. People who talk about iPhone as if it’s an implacable juggernaut are usually forgetting that it’s only four years old. Things change fast in the consumer electronics space.

    I haven’t seen any signs that the company is flexible enough to adapt.

    As you said in your Microsoft post, you don’t follow the company very closely. While Apple under Steve Jobs has far outstripped Microsoft in introducing innovative products, the corporate culture is extremely rigid in a number of ways. In contrast, Microsoft’s corporate flexibility has always been one of the company’s hallmarks. More than that, it’s a company that knows how to learn from both its mistakes and successes, as well as those of others.

    Time will tell.

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