Following the path taken by Android since its unveiling in 2007 isn’t an easy task: we’re not talking here about a calm walk but a climb through a very steep slope. Its growth has been as impressive as its evolution and ability to adapt to the changing environment. Born in the shadow of iPhone’s hegemony, Android hasn’t been only able to struggle with iOS for the smartphone market share but it has also been able to introduce innovations, attract manufacturers and keep the armony with them.
The consequence: Today the market is mostly split between two Smartphone Superpowers in a not-so-Cold War. iPhone is still the best-selling smartphone while Android is the most used OS on smartphones around the World. As superpowers, each of them has their vices and virtues, their army of supporters and detractors and their challenges to be maintained or stand out from the other. In this brief post I’m going to set out which are, from my point of view, the five challenges that Android has to face in a short/mid-term not to miss the boat.
In other words, the different OS versions cohabiting out there: Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich,… Why is this a problem? For developers: they’ve to develop apps thinking of making them run on devices which will probably have different Android OS versions. This is a barrier to entry. What’s more, new features can be introduced not only by hardware that take advantage of apps (multitouch, for instance): it can also be done by upgrading the OS (for example, Face Unlock on ICS).
The drawback for users is a consequence of this: since some developers will opt to develop only apps for the last Android OS version (to take advantage of the last features), the users that own an older version get stucked, specially if they can’t update their OS version because the manufacturer has decided not to release an update for an old or low-end device.
Thus, Android fragmentation works against developers and users and only benefits manufacturers who use it as a built-in obsolescence mechanism: update or die, and if you can’t update due to the device you own, buy a new one. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich seems to be a first step in the integration process, at least regarding both tablets and smartphones, although manufacturers’ updating policy is still leaving devices in the lurch. They’ve to step forward in this regard if they want to contribute to strengthen the Android community.
I believe Android keeps growing thanks to its functionalities, not due to an effort of branding. Actually, Android is far away of being a “love brand” as Apple is. Google isn’t up to it so far. Perhaps it’s this way because it’s difficult to promote an OS without focusing on the device that carries it. This precisely what manufacturers do in their advertising campaigns: focusing on the device’s features without paying too much attention to the OS. Thus, the decision of buying a device with Android OS is still a rational decision in which what matters is the price, the device looking/potential or the OS advantages. The emotional purchase doesn’t prevail as it does in Apple. The promotion is one of the lacks of Android. Google should look into it as soon as possible not just to attract new users but also to cultivate its loyalty. It will require an excellent and close relationship with manufacturers and an important investment on emotional campaigns.
Apple and Android are immersed in a patent war which until now has mainly damaged Android. These denounces look for putting burdens on Android’s growing. However, both manufacturers and Google are working on hitting back. Actually, the acquisition of Motorola by Google, what has been called “Googlerola” seems to be its first response: it implies the ownership of 17000 patent. In fact, this seems to be quite more important than owning the factory and the physical production of devices (what it’s a threat to other developers associated to Google by means of Android OS). The idyllic situation would be leaving the patent war, but it seems that won’t happen in the short-term, specially because it depends not only on Android but a change in Apple’s belligerent attitude. In this regard, Googlerola’s path seems to be a good strategy to stand up. However, Google has to demonstrate to its associated manufacturers that this path isn’t a threat either to the meritocratic Nexus policy nor to the continuity of their partnership.
Apple is often called the safest OS for smartphones. Does this mean that Android is not as “secure” as Apple? This seems to be the shared belief, even though there weren’t reported too many gaps on Android security except the malware intrusion of January 2011. One of the most interesting features of Android is the freedom to develop and upload apps to the Android market. That’s a great chance for emerging developers and, at the same time, fits with Google’s mood. Having thousands of apps on the market (well-known apps and “diamond in the rough”) has a counterpart: weaker restrictions. Although until now the system seems to work properly, at least regarding virus, malware and other dangerous attacks, the weakest point concerns permissions. Every app, before starting installation, asks you to accept or decline a list of permissions needed to run properly in your device. Permissions needed are chosen by the developer though. This means that’s up to the developer being “fair” in this regard or asking for “extra” permissions which take advantage of your privacy. Take into account that there are users really suspicious as “read contact data“ or “write contact data” (among others). I’m pretty sure that permissions will start to worry most of users soon when they realize first cases of privacy violation. Thus, Google should be ready to give a response in this sense by enhancing the info about permissions that users receive or by setting some restrictions on developer’s choice.
The future of Android OS will specially depend on its ability to get integrated in other devices beyond smartphones. Android should do what Apple did but going the other way. In other words, Android should expand to PC, TV, Laptops and all those daily-use devices. It has to become a platform provider in a holistic way. Actually, the project Android x86 is working on making it run in laptops and PCs. The integration into Smart-TV is another path to explore. Android has started to bite Apple just in the smartphones/tablet market, but iOS is a Goliath which is still innovating and growing. If Google believe that Android is strong enough to take part in this struggle, it should start thinking big. The integration in other type of devices must be its goal.
These are the main challenges that Android has to face to survive and evolve in the short/mid-term. There are others though and there will appear new ones. We’ll be right here to explain them to you and to give our modest opinion on the matter.
Emmanuel Lund uses to be a nom-de-guerre for Manuel Gálvez
AndroidZoom’s most nomadic, eclectic and miscellaneous writer.