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Android under New Google

Dan Frommer wrote some interesting speculation about Android and called out some of its failings, but I disagree that this part represents Android failing to meet its goals:

Android has done little to radically disrupt the mobile industry. The majority of power still belongs to the same telecom operators that ruled five years ago, and many of the same handset/component makers. Google has helped Samsung boringly ascend and has accelerated decline at Nokia and BlackBerry. It has perhaps stopped Apple from selling as many phones as it might in an Android-free world, and has helped prevent Microsoft from gaining a solid foothold in mobile. …

It’s true that the carrier model hasn’t been disrupted, and in fact, Android has helped strengthen it (and build an uncomfortably close, “open”-internet-hostile relationship between Google and Verizon Wireless).

But back when the first iPhone was making a huge splash, when Google started taking Android seriously and quickly pivoted it from a BlackBerry ripoff into an iOS ripoff, I don’t think they intended to disrupt the established carrier or retail models.

I think it was a defensive move. Mainstream computing and internet usage were clearly moving away from PCs and toward mobile devices, and Google saw a potential future where their core business — web search with their ads — could be wiped out by a single Bing-exclusive deal on a dominant, locked-down platform.1

Google needs Android to have substantial market share to prevent any other platform vendor from ever locking Google’s most important services out of a major part of mainstream computing. It’s the same reason Chrome and Chrome OS exist. In an industry dominated by vertically integrated control freaks, everyone must become one to ensure that nobody else can lock them out.

The flaw with the Android strategy is that, in practice, it doesn’t prevent powerful manufacturers from forking it and cutting Google out. Google probably assumed that no single manufacturer would ever get powerful enough to create their own alternatives to Google’s integrated apps, store, and services, and that Android would be deployed much like Windows on PCs: largely unmodified, with manufacturers all shipping almost the same software and differentiating themselves only in hardware. But as we’ve seen already with Amazon and the Kindle Fire platform (and maybe soon, the powerful Samsung Galaxy line), that’s not a safe assumption anymore.

So I agree with Frommer’s conclusions: maybe big changes are on the horizon at Google to fix this. Old Google, in 2007, frequently toyed around with “open” projects that might not lead anywhere useful for the overall business. Old Google made Android.

New Google is much more strategic, cold, and focused. Let’s see what they do to it.

  1. This concern isn’t overly paranoid or unwarranted: it already happened with iOS 6 Maps. Sure, there’s now a Google Maps app that you can download separately, but most iOS users aren’t likely to bother, and it can never be as deeply integrated into other parts of iOS as Apple’s native Maps service. ↩︎