Android licensees: Keep your options open

Phil GoldsteinGoogle has had a rough few weeks. It disclosed last week it had been the target of a cyber attack it said originated in China. The company's long-term business prospects in the world's largest mobile market are now up in the air. As a result, Google decided to postpone the scheduled launch of two Android phones, one built by Motorola and another by Samsung, through China Unicom. An unnamed source familiar with the company's thinking told the Wall Street Journal it would be "irresponsible" to release the phones, given the current atmosphere. Two days later though, Sony Ericsson said it did not plan to delay the Chinese launch of its first Android phone, scheduled for later this year.

I think these actions speak not only to the different paths companies can take to using Android, but to how the wireless industry deals with Google in general. As Google becomes more enmeshed in the wireless industry, traditional players--especially handset makers--might want to hedge their bets in how they work with Android.

The phones Google postponed were reportedly ones the company had designed in tandem with the manufacturers and China Unicom, and came packaged with Google applications. They appear to be devices that, like the G1 and the Motorola Droid, Google was closely involved with from a development perspective. By contrast, Sony Ericsson's Xperia X10 looks to be a device largely of the manufacturer's creation. It sports an Android base, but Sony Ericsson built a unique user interface on top of it--like Motorola's MotoBLUR and HTC's Sense UI. This appears to give Sony Ericsson greater freedom to do what it pleases with its launch, without Google's input.

Of course, Android licensees have always been free to adapt Android as they see fit. I think that's part of Android's strength. However, there is a clear downside in relying too much on Google, as Motorola is learning. The company, which bet heavily on Android to fuel its turnaround in the handset market, on Thursday announced it would offer its own Android application storefront from China (where the Android Market is not available), called Shop4Apps, and said it inked a search deal with Baidu, China's largest Internet search provider. Clearly, while Motorola has a very close relationship with Google, it is not discounting other options.

Having options--and using as many as possible--when it comes to Android will be crucial. As more and more companies release Android devices, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of uniformity across the platform. If you ask someone what the experience on an iPhone or a BlackBerry is, they can tell you immediately. If you ask someone what an Android phone is, it might take a little longer. That might be bad for Android as a brand, but paradoxically, this differentiation may be the best thing for Android licensees in the long run.

What Motorola has done is incredibly savvy. It has relied on Google, but only up to a point. I think the companies that embrace Android and see it as a growth opportunity should keep their options open as much as possible by developing unique user interfaces and releasing several flavors of Android devices. That way, they can choose to work closely with Google on certain phones if they wish, but can also avoid the delays that Motorola and Samsung are experiencing this week by going their own way on other devices, like Sony Ericsson apparently has done.

The case of China may turn out to be an isolated incident; after all, the phones have not been cancelled. But Android licensees would be wise to do more than just click "I'm feeling lucky." --Phil