While the iPhone OS (iOS) has been dominant for a while, Android recently surpassed it in the US and globally.
Is this good news for Google? Yes and no.
Apple has introduced one phone a year for the last 4, and at any time, it offers 3 flavors: 16 and 32 GB versions of the current model, and one lower GB version of last year’s. Apple makes both the hardware and software of the device, and tightly controls software by 3rd parties.
Google, on the other hand, only supplies the OS (for free) to any OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) who wants it, and has little, if any, control on software by 3rd parties. Consequently, there are numerous flavors to choose from for an Android handset. This is why Android is outpacing the iOS in the number of devices installed. It won’t be long before it becomes the dominant platform for mobile phones, just like Windows once was.
However, there is bad news for the future of Android.
Firstly, since OEMs are allowed to tweak the OS to their liking, there will be OS fragmentation because different makers would like to differentiate their device from the competition.
Secondly, different Android devices may have different versions of the OS (1.6, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2), and the path to upgrade to the latest version will be different for different manufacturers and will be dictated by them, as well. This has led to further OS fragmentation.
How does it matter? Well, any software (app) written for an OS works the best if it is written for a particular version of that OS. Certainly, it can be programmed to be backwards compatible but then it would lose some of the optimization for a later version it was primarily intended to work with.
In addition, if an app is written for one particular version of the OS running on one particular device (hardware) will be the most optimal in function. If and app written for a particular OS version for several different devices will not be as good. It would be worse if an app is written to work on several OS versions running on several different devices by different vendors.
In other words, Apple has the best of all worlds: one device, one manufacturer and one OS version at a time. Certainly, there is some fragmentation of the iOS (a user with an older model may not choose to, or be unable to, upgrade to the latest version), but it is not as bad as Android. Google, on the other hand, has the worst of all options: several devices, several manufacturers and several OS versions at the same time.
In addition to the quality of apps produced for the OS, any software designer will prefer to make money by making only one version of the app, like for the iPhone; he/she will have to make several versions to run on different versions of the Android to make the same money.
As a device user, I’d like to have the latest version of the OS as soon as it is available. I’d be rather upset that I cannot upgrade to the current version of the OS because of my hardware or the OEM would not allow it. I’d be very irked to see another person sporting a similar gadget with the latest version of the OS.
Finally, there are rumors of a Google-Verizon tablet that will run on the Chrome OS. This will lead to even more OS fragmentation of Google’s mobile devices; developers who write several versions of the same app for the Android OS that powers the mobile handsets (different OS versions, different OEMs), will now have to write a totally different app to run on a Chrome based tablet.
It is a bit perplexing why Google is following this model. Apple has only one iOS for both its phone and tablet, and therefore has a single App Store. True, all of the 250,000 iPhone apps do not look great on an iPad, but you still can use them. While there are apps exclusive to the iPad, there are many more that are scalable to both the iPhone and iPad displays (universal apps). Google on the other hand, has two ‘App Stores’: an Android Market and a Chrome Market (announced to open later this year).
It could be that Google’s decision to put Chrome on its rumored tablet is because of the recent suit by Oracle: “In developing Android, Google knowingly, directly, and repeatedly infringed Oracle’s Java-related intellectual property” an Oracle spokesperson said in a statement. “This lawsuit seeks appropriate remedies for their infringement.”
If Oracle prevails, it could mean the end of Android, as “Google makes heavy use of Java in the Android software development kit (SDK). Third-party developers code Android apps in Java, which is then translated into bytecode that runs in Dalvik, Google’s own custom VM Virtual Machine).” Google’s sole purpose of creating Dalvik was to route around Sun’s IP-based licensing restrictions on Java ME.
Android could be cast away like a hot potato by Google, like Microsoft ditched the Windows Mobile platform!
There is more bad news for Android. The three most profitable cellphone makers are Apple, RIM and Nokia. They also have their own OS and would not likely use Android in their handsets. So the OS is left to be picked up by manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Motorola and HTC. While they make a lot of phones, their profit margins are very thin.
This chart is courtesy of another blog, asymco. The article, ‘Android Pursuit of the Biggest Losers‘, is very well written and worth a read.
In three years, RIM and Apple now have increased their EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) from 6% to 17% and 1% to 48%, respectively, of the share among the top 7 mobile vendors. This was at the expense of Nokia, mainly. What is quite interesting is that all the prospective Android (and Windows 7) manufacturers share the humble pie of the remaining 13% of the EBIT.
Something to think about.
UPDATE: A good explanation of why “its time to end the forced use custom skins” by different OEMs (Motoblur, Sense), and why “the fragmentation of UIs slows Android upgrades and removes customer choice”.