Google’s Android Platform Faces Five Tough Obstacles
September 23rd, 2008
Daniel Eran Dilger
Google new Android mobile platform has been received by some members of the tech media with such glowing adoration that one might get the impression that Android is destined to waltz into the smartphone business just as surely as Bill Gates’ robotic dance killed off the Seinfeld ads. Here’s five aspects of Android reality that they’re failing to consider.
Whenever CNET or VNUNet and their ilk fawn over a new product, it’s a bad omen. This is the crowd that applauded Vista, the Zune, PlaysForSure Windows Media DRM, and so on. In each case, rather than presenting two sides of possible outcomes, that entire segment of punditry professed to have a special insight into why the world would simply be taken by storm, and of course they were completely wrong.
Just having their breathless support is a warning sign, because they all want certain things to happen so desperately that they ignore all sorts of pesky warning and potential problems to deliver a perfectly cheery, single minded outlook.
There’s nothing wrong with stating a hopeful opinion or voicing support to see a given technology take hold. However, these sites are supposed to be reporting news, not advocating for their advertisers. Here on the eve of the Google announcement, I’ll present five things the tech media either hasn’t considered or has purposely covered up to deliver a more convenient tale.
I walk through the valley of the shadow of hype.
The first problem for Android is that it is being deployed during a rainstorm of iPhone hype. Apple introduced the iPhone nearly two years ago, and managed to maintain rapt media attention for six months until it shipped. Unlike Android, the iPhone was brutally assaulted by CNET and the other usual suspects.
Even pundits who had never written about mobiles before came out with regular attacks and potential criticisms that were often laughable. They bent over backward to assure readers that Apple could never do to smartphones what it had done in to MP3 players with the iPod, and that everything about the iPhone was wrong, from its lack of a chicklet keyboard to price tag to its missing features and its unnecessary features and its woefully inadequate security.
This was absurd. The iPhone was clearly a breakthrough product, and also had some clear limitations. There was plenty to write about on both sides. The fact that the iPhone emerged through all this hailstorm of overstated and often dishonest reporting to become the most talked about product of 2007 and the largest selling smartphone model in the US throughout its debut is pretty impressive.
Apple continued to keep attention up through a series of upgrades, the release of the iPod touch, the announcement of the App Store and enterprise-friendly 2.0 features, and the delivery of the new iPhone 3G to a worldwide audience. Apple has kept iPhone media attention going for nearly two years now, and things are just getting more exciting for users and developers.
The problem for Google isn’t that the iPhone can’t be competed against; it’s that there’s not enough room in people’s minds to keep track of a second place achiever. The iPhone is the phone that phones are measured against, just as the iPod is the MP3 player others are compared with.
Not even Microsoft’s deep pockets could deliver a serious threat to the iPod after two years of trying with the Zune (and two years of trying with PlaysForSure before that). There wasn’t enough room in people’s minds to keep track of several different products. Apple got there first and set up shop and became the brand people think about.
There are other historical examples of good enough products being shut out by insufficient air for a rival. IBM’s OS/2 Warp was superior to Windows 95 in a variety of ways, but after Microsoft impregnated Windows 95 in the minds of users, there wasn’t room to think about competitors. The Sony Walkman is another example. It had competitors, but none really memorable for your mom to recall. It took an entirely different product category and technology shift for it to be unseated by the iPod.
Android will forever be lurking in the shadows as the iPhone killer, not the product others seek to kill. This is a problem for Google, because mindshare is very difficult to buy once a rival brand has established itself as the brand in a category. It’s like competing with Xerox, Kleenex, Viagra, or in the area of web search, Google. Anyone who is particularly familiar with those products can probably name competitors, but the general public doesn’t think about them very much.
It also doesn’t help that the shadow Android walks out into is now in its second generation, taking on the world stage, creating its own weather by generating tens of millions of development incentives, and has been aggressively priced. If Android phones were being floated as a cheap alternative to the iPhone last year when it was $599, things would look better. How does one compete against a $199 wildly popular icon with robust features and an established reputation and software base?
The definition of Android pretty much has to make some mention of the iPhone, just like the definition of Zune has to acknowledge the iPod. Selling Android will be like selling Royal Crown cola. It doesn’t matter how good it might taste, and therein lies challenge number one.
Welcome Graduates to the New Recession.
A second problem for Android is that it is being shoved into the market during an economic crisis. This nearly bit Apple too, and pundits worried aloud repeatedly if Apple’s $599 iPhone would flop miserably as consumer buying began to slow in 2007. Instead, buyers shrugged off no name basic phones and older models like Motorola’s tired RAZR and the Palm Treo and snatched up the iPhone, leaving all the predicted economic pain on everyone else.
Apple has continued to outpace the economic downturn with robust sales of iPods even as the average sale price rises and the MP3 player market contracts. It’s been selling 35 to 40% more Macs year over year as the overall PC market slows to a crawl. And despite contracting smartphone growth worldwide, Apple’s iPhone sales are off the hook. How many more companies will be able to cheat reality?
Things are bad and getting worse. Google’s debut smartphone is a gadgety toy model that will primarily appeal to people who want the frilliest device available. The economic crisis going on will hit that segment the hardest. Again, if Android had shipped a year ago things might be very different, but that’s now impossible.
Apple can offer examples of its own of floating a premium product out into a downturn. The PowerMac G4 Cube was introduced just as the dotcom bubble popped, leaving the high tech box ignored among a population of buyers whose discretionary spending had evaporated just as they were getting hammered by the AMT on investment paper wealth that didn’t exist anymore. Cube sales tanked.
One can add the first two problems together to find that not only is Google debuting Android in a tough economic crisis, but its doing so in the shadow of Apple, so that anyone in the market for a fancy new phone will likely have either already bought the iPhone 3G, or will be making plans to do so without giving Android’s first generation attempt much time to prove itself. This reality is also complicated by problem number three.
The Hype is About to Evaporate.
The third major problem for Android is that the media has been doing nothing but singing its praises. While the iPhone was brutally attacked for six months before its debut, customers were able to see it and make their own opinion about why they might want it. After weathering all the criticism, the original iPhone was like going to a movie that had been panned by the critics as a monstrous failure; expectations were blown away by what was actually a very good product.
The iPhone’s debut was good enough to get Apple through a far more problematic 3G 2.0 release. Users had decided that they could put up with the bugs because Apple was clearly going to fix things. And sure enough, Apple delivered within a few weeks. The iPhone was never oversold to the point where anyone felt cheated. Its flaws had been painstakingly recounted to the point where nobody could possibly be surprised by any missing bits.
Not so with Android. It has received nothing but frothy setup as the messiah, something that will rival the iPhone while offering a magical aura of absolute freedom and low prices and no restrictions. Android faces the impossibly difficult task of living up to the critics’ anointing of it as rarified perfection in every way, with no design compromises anywhere.
Android is going to be unfairly compared to the iPhone. ‘Unfairly’ because it doesn’t have the advantages Apple has as a solitary integrator with more than a year of experience in shipping its phone, nearly 7 years of shipping the iPod and managing user experiences with it, and nearly a quarter century of delivering an integrated hardware platform.
Android doesn’t even support multitouch. The T-Mobile debut model isn’t slim and sexy and refined; it’s clunky and cheap and plasticky. Android isn’t trying to compete against the iPhone, but the tech media has erected a fanciful snow machine of hype to blow around Christmas in September. Android should have floated out as a nice alternative to Windows Mobile, but it has been set up for failure and consumer ridicule because pundits have positioned it as an iPhone killer, something I pointed out was in error before Android even debuted.
Gartner’s Kiss of Death.
If dancing out into the world stage in the shadow of the iPhone and during a recession after being setup up with hopelessly high expectations isn’t bad enough, Android has also received the kiss of death from the forked tongue of the Gartner snake. The group has come out with the prediction that Android will become the de facto distribution of mobile Linux and take over 10% of the smartphone market share by 2010.
This is the think tank that assured the world that Itanium would rapidly take over the PC server world and become a roughly $30 billion industry by 2002. By 2002 it had changed its tune, and a half decade later Itanium remains a major failure. Gartner also celebrated the release of Vista and initially predicted a rapid adoption in the enterprise until it was obvious that wasn’t happening. It predicted Macs would go away and said that businesses shouldn’t care about the iPhone because Apple didn’t care about the enterprise market, another prediction it was forced to hastily review a few months later.
Gartner is mostly always wrong in the long term because it never makes ballsy predictions based on critical thinking; it merely says what the industry seems to think is obvious at the time, and generates statistics to support the consensus opinion. The problem is that general opinion in the tech industry is usually wrong. Things happen so quickly and change can abruptly plot a new course so dramatically that the celebrants of the status quo are nearly always left looking foolish.
The people celebrating Android’s prospects in advance are similarly looking at things, not with an analytical view of what is likely to happen, but either with a naively unblinking optimism about the wonders of open software or, in the case of Gartner, a desperate attempt to reflect whatever they think the tech industry wants to be told.
Market Share and Share Alike.
Gartner’s prediction that Android will become the de facto distribution of Linux is what everyone thinks will happen, because it’s simple and easy to believe. However, everyone predicting the future of Linux has been wrong so far, whether they were advocating it and expecting the ‘year of Linux on the desktop,“ or criticizing it as tainted by SCO and unlikely to every be accepted by the enterprise. Tech predictions are almost always wrong, often in an inverse proportion to how optimistic and certain they are in making a claim.
Gartner’s random generation of a 10% market figure was no doubt custom crafted for Google’s press release. But this figure is ridiculous whether Android takes off as the mainstream distro for mobile Linux or not. For starters, the various mobile Linux platforms currently have a 7.3% share of the market for Q2 2008, down from 10% Q2 2007, according to Gartner itself.
If Android absorbed all of this, it would still have to cheat the trend to get back to 10% over the next two years, and it’s only starting with one phone set with a rather limited appeal from the fourth place mobile provider in the US. More likely, Android will compete in its own space against other Linux distros already in use, such as the simple embedded Linux kernel that powers Motorola’s phones in China, where Android would offer no real advantages.
Android is unlikely to engulf the Linux world in a year or two, because it really holds promise as an alternative to Windows Mobile, not as a drop-in replacement for simpler embedded Linux phones.
Disaster Around the Corner.
If the poisonous sting of a Gartner endorsement isn’t bad enough, I’ve lobbed my own prediction of pain for Android, a topic that nobody else in the industry seems to have given any regard to at all. Unlike Gartner, whenever I make a prediction it’s so impossibly against mainstream thought that nobody takes it seriously.
I predicted crazy things like why Vista wouldn’t storm the world stage in the manner of Windows 95, and that PlaysForSure subscriptions and later the Zune wouldn’t put a dent in iPod sales. I predicted that Apple would parlay the sixth generation iPod into a smart messaging platform with both business and consumer applications. I predicted Apple would ignore the PC Gamer industry and target casual gaming. I predicted that Blu-ray would triumph over HD-DVD but that it wouldn’t matter because consumers would largely ignore DRM discs for enhanced DVD and video downloads.
I also predicted that iPod Games were a harbinger for a new deployment of mobile software for the iPhone, secured from piracy by invisible DRM and distributed through iTunes, creating a workable model for mobile software in an industry that had been as dysfunctional as the music subscription and sales arena before the iTunes Store. I didn’t sell my white papers for $300 a copy, and I supported my ideas with rational explanations rather than invented statistics.
Windows 95 and Vista: Why 2007 Won’t Be Like 1995
Myth 6: Microsoft’s iPod Killer Myth
Strike 3: Why Zune will Bomb this Winter
Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing
Generation 6 iPods
Blu-ray vs HD-DVD in Next Generation Game Consoles
Why Low Def is the New HD
I’m sure some readers can recall mistakes I’ve made in the past, too. However, just as I was sure that Apple would launch a dynamic change in the mobile software world, I’m also sure Android Market will burn things down by trying to deliver software in the security free model of YouTube. I’ve already written that up in article form, but the short version is that Google has simply (and negligently) decided to sidestep the complex issue of platform security by not having any, just like Microsoft did in the 90s. The grievous problem with this is that we now have the hindsight to outline what a costly and tragic mistake that was for Microsoft.
Google is set to burst on the scene with a new phone that purports to do everything the iPhone can and more: run all sorts of crazy apps developers can think of with no authoritarian restrictions on spyware, performance sapping background activities, or human interface guidelines like those from Apple, no burdensome infrastructure providing the $40 million monthly development incentive of the Apps Store, no pesky certificates that prevent pandemic malware distribution, and no lever to pull to stop an epidemic once it breaks out. This is insane.
The Five Flaws in Android.
To recap: Android is launching in the shadow of the heroically large iPhone brand, on the cusp of a consumer electronics economic coma, it will be compared against a slick, mature, purpose built icon rather than its intended audience, it has the fawning praise of pundits that are nearly always wrong about their hunches, and it fails to take any precautions to do software correctly right out of the gate.
Android may well succeed, and I certainly have nothing against it. I’d rather see Google become the widest deployed operating system among mobile devices than Nokia’s creaky old Symbian mess; or Microsoft’s pitiful catastrophe named Windows Mobile; or Palm’s archaic OS fossil; or RIM’s proprietary shell of an environment; or the various squabbling bands of Linux distros that hold each other back like lobsters trying to crawl out of a fish tank.
The problem is that everyone who is hyperventilating about Android hasn’t even taken the effort to examine its outstanding problems, and that in itself will contribute to setting it up for a disappointing debut.
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