Android hype vehicle set to crash in 2010
January 2nd, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
In late 2009 the tech media couldn’t stop buzzing about the next Android phone, whether it’s Google’s own branding of the next HTC model (Nexus One), or Motorola’s desperate attempt to stay relevant with its own Droid-Killer, called the Shadow. Some even think Sony Ericsson’s death throes with the Xperia X10 will be significant. They’re wrong, here’s why.
The key problem for the future of Android is that it does not offer anything new. The art of business imitates life: the fittest survive through a process of trying new ideas. New ideas that result in increased suitability for existence win out and become the foundation for the next generation of experiments, whether genetic or commercial. However, survival of the fittest doesn’t necessarily mean survival of the most ideal from any one subjective viewpoint.
Weeds grow everywhere because they are fit for surviving without cultivation assistance. But to a farmer, those weeds aren’t fit for survival because they don’t offer any potential for resale. Similarly, an animal embryo destined by circumstances to live in a dark cave habitat does not benefit from the activation of its latent DNA switches to express genes related to creating color vision. Having irrelevant capabilities for your environment are not an example of fitness for survival that will be rewarded, unless they allow you to now venture out into a new environment.
Android offers nothing to make devices significantly cheaper or more sophisticated or more attractive than the iPhone. It does offer some “ideologically open” bragging rights (which proved to be worthless for Linux on the desktop over the past decade), and it offers the hardware partners of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile a cheaper (or even “cheaper than free”) alternative to their currently dead-end path without actually improving much (if any) upon the level of technology Microsoft was delivering.
If this sounds like an unnecessarily harsh critique of Android, first consider that everything positive you’ve read about Android has largely come from sources that would either stand to benefit from its success, or from the tech pundits who have been wrong every time they open their mouths because they are only capable of saying the things that flatter the interests of the earlier group.
This all happened before
Recall that when the iPhone came out in 2007 there was a similarly heady bit of froth on the lips of the collective tech media then too, except rather than being Google-branded me-too-ism of Windows Mobile, it was Microsoft’s own attempt to slap its name on an otherwise non-impressive bit of hardware aimed at Apple’s previous success, the iPod.
We were doggedly reminded that the Zune would be how Microsoft would take away all of Apple’s success with the iPod just as Windows had ripped off the Macintosh in the 90s. Except that didn’t happen. Instead, Apple debuted something just weeks after the Zune that wildly leapfrogged the existing iPod, the Zune, and the Windows Mobile operating system Microsoft had been working on for the last several years without much success: the iPhone.
Apple went on to trounce the smartphone market, embarrass the leading mobile makers, and redefine how phones would work in the future. It then applied this technology to reinvent the iPod into a similarly pocket-sized device with leading web browsing features and sandboxed third party apps just like the iPhone.
Windows Enthusiasts were so violently side-swept by the iPhone that they insisted that the Zune could only be compared against the iPod, and really only against the classic legacy model from 2005 that Apple continued to sell. It has taken years of spectacular failure to drum simple reality into the core followers of Microsoft’s stillborn iPod-killer.
When Microsoft floated the Zune HD as an iPod touch killer, albeit without the same level of sophistication in its browser, without anything akin to iTunes, without a vibrant software market, and without lots of other features, the idiot tech press insisted that Microsoft would make up for all these deficiencies by using a Tegra chip, an OLED screen, and offering HD Radio. Microsoft may just as well have spent millions to grant color vision to dark cave dwelling animals.
Buckle your safety belts, because that crazy bit of off-road driving is about to play out again.
2010, meet 2007.
When Apple unveils the Tablet, it will be very much like the iPhone. It will wow the mainstream with its targeted usability and its clever interface slickness, and will be met with sour grape disgust by the same clowns who desperately tried to portray the Zune as being an awesome product that potential iPod buyers should choose instead.
But importantly, it will also expose Google’s tired attempt to beat Microsoft’s Window Mobile at its own game (without applying much creativity) as being much less important than the Android-enamored seem to think it is. Google isn’t changing the world with Android, it’s just ripping off an existing, unexceptional product. Google’s Android is not more special in the grand scheme of things than Compaq’s effort to clone the original IBM PC.
Sure, that resulted in temporary wealth for Compaq at IBM’s expense, but nobody cares today. IBM is a totally different company after failing as a PC maker, and Compaq is now nothing more than a brand name that HP puts on its crappier models. The real hero of the early 80s was Apple’s Mac, which is not just still around, but redefined how all PCs would subsequently work for decades. It changed the world because it dared to do things very different.
Google can kill off the moribund remains of Windows Mobile and it won’t even matter much. It’ll be like Ronald Reagan taking credit for defeating the Soviets after they had really already self-destructed on their own feeble swords of incompetence a decade earlier. There’s really nothing impressive about inventing a suitable replacement with only slight advantages or conquering a previously vanquished enemy.
Adding value through real change.
America arguably invented the automotive industry. European companies frequently made the car sexier or more luxurious, and the Japanese made everything smaller and more reliable. Over the last few decades, most American car makers have fallen into crisis because they resisted any meaningful and original changes. The US government resisted seeking alternative fuels or meaningful enhancements to efficiency. Improvements in safety and sheet metal shapes didn’t save American car makers because those same innovations were duplicated by every other car maker worldwide.
Without offering their customers anything new to differentiate their models as being fitter or cheaper or more desirable, all they had left was a plea to buy American on ideological grounds. The problem there was that other foreign car makers are now just as “domestic” because they are built here from the same parts manufactured overseas.
Android similarly tries to make much of the fact that it is ideologically open, despite the fact that this doesn’t necessarily benefit customers, and isn’t necessarily any more the case for Android phones than for the iPhone or any other smartphone model. Apple also uses open source code in its core OS and within Safari. At the same time, Android phones “with Google” and Android Market apps are similarly closed off by security partitions and restrictions.
Outside of supplying the hot air that inflates’s tech media wags’ opinion pieces regarding Android’s vaunted openness, the idea that an Android phone is any more “open” than the iPhone in any measurable way relevant to consumers simply has no real meaning, certainly no more than pleadings by GM to “buy American.”
Ideological fluff is not a core feature that entices buyers because it doesn’t affect change in a way that delivers perceived advantages. It it were, the last decade would have involved a lot more retail sales of Linux PCs. Like Windows Enthusiasts and “Linux on the desktop” advocates of the last decade, the Android-enamored are quick to ignore real data about the market and fixate on meaningless data points and anecdotal experiences that suggest a real foundation for their fantasy.
Rational thought is based on objective information gathering done to understand what is actually the case. Irrational fantasy starts with a faith that something is the case and then searches desperately for reasons to continue believing that, and reasons to continue to reject any new incontrovertible evidence that arises.
Affecting change is the meaning of life.
Apple as a company, and particularly with Steve Jobs at the helm, has historically been willing to bet significant investments into delivering the future though revolutionary and evolutionary change. The Apple II made experimental personal computers into an approachable, ready-to-use product. The Lisa and Mac incorporated $50 million of research into how people could best interact with a consistent user interface. Only after Jobs left Apple did the company begin making conservative, and ultimately failed, efforts to just squeeze money from its existing efforts rather than dynamically push the envelope in new directions.
In 1986, Jobs risked his personal wealth to start NeXT and deliver the world major new progressive advances in computing. By then however, the conservative copycats outside of Apple were working to monetize the elementary technologies of the 70s in order to make easy money selling DOS PCs. Supported by a high priest class of tech press propagandists, advances in the realm of personal computing technology ground to a halt, particularly in software and usability; Microsoft continued to sell 70s DOS with a thin layer of 80s Mac clonage layered on top throughout the 90s.
It wasn’t until the end of the decade that Jobs’ merged NeXT-Apple combination managed to deliver NeXT’s sophisticated operating system to a mainstream audience, reversing the course of the following decade. In knee-jerk response, Microsoft scrambled ineffectually to deliver Vista, then face-planted its official release, only to reissue a patched up edition years later as Windows 7. In the same time period, Apple devoured the valuable segment of the PC market, leaving PC competitors to drive their product lines into unprofitable bargain basement territory just to maintain their sales volumes.
The reasons were numerous, but Apple surpassed its competitors by offering accessible bundles of new and interesting technology first and best. It did the same with the iPod, and the iPhone. There are PCs and MP3 players and phones with features and specifications that Apple doesn’t offer, but nobody offers a package that delivers as much practical “new and useful” all at once. And the various reasons are all tied to the same investment in newness that created NeXTSTEP, morphed it into Mac OS X, ported it to new platforms, and scaled it to mobile devices.
No PC maker has invested a significant effort to deliver anything comparable to Apple. None even bother to create their own core software. What does this say about Google’s attempt to deliver Android? Well, what’s new in Android? It doesn’t push any boundaries or deliver anything really new. It’s not resulting in cheaper devices, nor faster ones, nor more sophisticated ones. All that’s unique is that Google is offering the core software openly, but in a way that doesn’t result in an open platform; it only has erased any remaining business model for selling a mobile operating system.
If you asked Microsoft or Symbian about the prospects for selling a mobile operating system, they would have had to admit there isn’t one. And that was well known well before Android appeared on the market. If free operating systems were really needed or desired in the mobile segment, they would have taken off in the years before Android, when several mobile Linux variants were floated by various companies ranging from Trolltech (now part of Nokia) to Motorola. So what new thing does Google offer with Android? Fractionalization, platform confusion, hardware and software integration issues to work out, and other aspects that were all contributing to the demise of Windows Mobile in the first place.
The next big thing.
Apple will kick off 2010 with a slate device that appears set to deliver a more impressive package of technical specifications, practical availability, and new abilities than anyone is even discussing in regard to Android. Even Microsoft’s most wishful thinking Courier vaporware, shown without any context of real-world price or performance or technical limitations, offers nothing that the tablet can’t overshadow to a humiliating extent.
And so it will be that–just weeks after Google announces to its Android-enamored user base that their existing Droid phone and contract are all now a joke on them–Apple will unveil a new device that will make all the talk about the next two Android phones about as interesting as any coverage of non-iPod music players. Which is to say extremely limited.
Google will find itself in the non-enviable position of Microsoft around 2006, back when it was attempting to float a widely-licensed alternative to the iPod while also at the same time competing with its own licensees in promoting a self-branded version it could use to pointedly aim at the iPod dynasty itself, leveraging all of its own brand power.
Microsoft and its partnership with PC makers in the early 90s could successfully compete against Apple’s Macintosh because useful innovation had been allowed to ground to a halt by Apple’s conservative leadership. PC makers offered innovations in price and eventually performance, while Microsoft incrementally used its monopoly market power to slowly match many of Apple’s previous software capabilities while also adding novel features of its own.
In the iPod and iPhone market, neither Microsoft nor Google are capable of generating sales that similarly overshadow Apple in sales volumes. That means neither Windows Mobile nor Android will be able attack Apple in terms of price, a factor that is also negated in many markets by the presence of service subsidies that mask (and overshadow) the hardware cost. Without being cheaper, these alternatives will have to take Apple on in features and usability, something that neither company has demonstrated any ability to do.
On top of all this, Google’s Android isn’t even trying to compete against the iPhone; Google has and will continue to share its DNA with the iPhone, as occurred with the compass feature last year and the Maps Navigation feature this year. Success for the iPhone is success for Google, because the iPhone is in many ways a Google client.
But the most devastating factor for the Android-enamored who prophesy an expansion in 2010 that will choke the iPhone is that Apple’s new tablet will suck up all the oxygen in the room and force pundits to beg Google to expand its efforts beyond the smartphone and into even greater imitation of Apple. within months of showing off the new tablet, Apple will roll out iPhone 4.0 and the fourth generation of the iPhone, and then the iPod touch. There simply isn’t enough time in 2010 for competitors to change course and shift their attention to competing with Apple in three directions all at once.
Last year’s Android-powered Nook isn’t going to look very impressive in comparison to Apple’s 2010 tablet. With Android pressed hard into the role of being good at everything, Google will either have to stop its engineers from making money selling ads and devote their time and millions of dollars into high risk R&D to compete against its closest partner, or delegate even more of the work to maintain the Android platform to other Open Handset Alliance partners. That will just inflame the Linux-fragmentation problems Android already faces.
But that’s not all.
In additional to issues on Google’s end, Android phone makers are also facing problems. Motorola and Sony Ericsson are the least successful phone makers in the top ten. HTC has all but lost its primary alternative in Windows Mobile, so it is desperate to make Android work. Even so, its own offerings are fragmented by operating system version issues and update potential issues.
More telling is how other makers are shunning Android before even giving it a shot, starting with Samsung, one of the few companies to make good hardware for a Windows Mobile phone. Nokia has both Symbian and Maemo Linux to use rather than Android, and Palm and RIM similarly both have no interest in giving up their own technology to adopt the least common denominator that is Android.
LG talks about interest in Android but is still in paid partnership with Microsoft to advertise the last gasping breath of that platform. And while it looks like Windows Mobile is nearly dead, Microsoft will likely devote as much marketing noise as it can to debut Windows Mobile 7 at the end of 2010, further giving Android the distraction of additional hydra heads to lop off.
With intense competition emerging between RIM, Palm, Bada, Symabian, Maemo, Windows Mobile, and Android, Apple will be best able to benefit from the strength between the iPhone, iPod, iTunes, and the new tablet.
This sets up why Android is far more likely to fail rather than to prosper or reach critical mass in 2010. The best news is: I’ll have all year to talk about how things work out for Android as pundits with ideological reasons to root for Android come to terms with reality. Even more fun will come from looking forward to what Apple is secretly working on to counter the vaporware being promoted by its rivals. I think it’ll be like watching a pregnant wolverine compete for survival against nests full of unattended eggs. The pundits are betting that those eggs will hatch some ferociously hungry birds. I’m betting on the wolverine and her babies.