If Android is a mess, will it matter?

A survey of 250 software developers working in the mobile app space was released yesterday by Baird’s William Powers. It showed that a full 86% of developers think Android platform fragmentation is a problem.

Among the problems that surfaced:

  • Device fragmentation. 56% of Android developers said that operating system fragmentation among the various Android devices was a meaningful or "huge" problem, a percentage that actually increased over the past three months.
  • Store fragmentation. Several developers expressed concern over Android app store fragmentation. "Generally," Baird reports, "developers seem to prefer a unified, single store experience like Apple’s App Store."
  • Ease of development. iOS outscored Android, but both were considered far easier to develop for than, say, Research in Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry OS or Nokia (NOK) Symbian.
  • App visibility. "iOS continues to lead," Baird reports, "followed by Blackberry, with Android still receiving poor marks in this category." Developers are particularly concerned about the level of "junk" apps in the Android ecosystem.
  • Ability to get paid. iOS leads here too, followed by BlackBerry.

Android is a mess, say developers

Will it matter, though? I have been saying since late 2009, that Android would be a problem for other mobile operating systems.

To my eyes, this is looking like a repeat of the Macintosh-PC Wars of the 1990s which Apple lost. On the one side, you have Apple, competing at the high end and very concerned about platform integrity and control, and preventing other manufacturers from building its hardware. On the other side, you have another operating system designed for the lower end and installed on a host of manufacturer systems – which may or may not cause serious platform integrity problems down the line.  Who wins that battle?

In the 1990s it was Intel and Microsoft. And they went on to reap massive rewards as Apple foundered.  Today, Apple risks a repeat of this if it does not come out with a credible solution to deal with its burgeoning Android problem.

And now that Android is in fact the number one platform in the mobile space, this view is gaining traction. For example, market research firm IDC is predicting that Android will grow to almost 50% of the market share by 2015. That’s not Wintel numbers, but a very dominant position.

Just yesterday, I went to the site of gaming company Gameloft to check  whether their were any tablet size updates to the Asphalt 5 app I had purchased for my son. The game works well on a mobile handset but doesn’t work at all on the Xoom tablet I have acquired (I might write a Xoom review at some point). When I went to the site, Gameloft asked me which ‘phone’ I was using. And when I went to the pulldown menu, it was sorted by manufacturer. There were something like 40 different companies in this list.  I was amazed. For me, this list at once demonstrated the advantage for Android and its Achilles” Heel.

From a platform perspective, the fact that a byzantine list of handset makers all with their own established distribution channels are making a panoply of devices for the Android market has to be a good thing. Google, Android’s developer, doesn’t really care about the profitability of Android hardware. It’s not selling handsets (although it tried and failed with the Nexus One). It doesn’t care if Samsung has good margins on its devices. All it cares about now is increasing Android’s penetration to sell apps and advertising against. As Fred Wilson wrote:

Google is not attempting to monetize its mobile OS. It has created a business model for Android that is very attractive for handset manufacturers and allows these OEMs to drive down their costs rapidly while continuing to deliver a top quality smartphone experience. Bill Gurley of Benchmark wrote a great post about Google’s mobile strategy earlier this week called "The Freight Train That Is Android". If you want to understand why this is happening, go read it.

Google’s real problem is the emergence of Amazon as a competitor on their own ‘open’ platform in selling music and apps. Apple doesn’t have that problem since they have closed off this kind of competition.

As a developer though, I imagine this is exactly the problem. I was searching for this piece of software because it wouldn’t work on my system. All of these devices with their specific hardware and mobile telco –customized operating system and bloatware make for a lot of different places where you could get a hardware-software conflict. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I used to use a Mac before switching to PCs. After a nearly error-free Mac experience, I remember having exactly the same problem with Windows. I would install some piece of software and it would blow up and crash my computer with a blue screen of death. Or I would install some Whizz bang piece of hardware only to come up upon some sort of ‘hardware conflict’, with a pop-up making an unintelligible cryptic technobabble reference to some error 1158 or the like. It’s maddening. That’s kind of where Google is right now.

But does it really matter?

I say no. Consumers are going to buy what is available and for offer. Distribution trumps ease of use. Ask Apple about Macintosh. And ask Microsoft about Windows. Market share trumps technological superiority too. Ask Sony about Betamax.

Yes, the pace of development of Android is faster than in the Windows days, creating a headache and causing fragmentation. But Google has decided to clamp down on this. Their decision certainly makes Android less ‘open’. But, fragmentation is a problem they need to solve. I think they will do.

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