Jarich: Android can't count on 'Facebook-effect' for long-term health

Peter Jarich

Peter Jarich

A few weeks back, it was time to remind my wife that our cell phone accounts are soon up for renewal.  Having become an iPad household over the past year, I asked whether or not it was time to make a switch from Android to the iPad's older brother, the iPhone.  Her answer?  "Nope, I'm comfortable with Android.  I know how it works and it does what I want."

Against this backdrop, I began wondering if Android isn't a bit like Facebook.  How many times have we seen users rail against Facebook's changing policies, lack of policies or just general gaffes?  But, how much has this impacted the overall health of the social networking behemoth? There's no denying that Android faces more than its fair share of troubles, but most analyses position it as the most successful (by unit shipment, anyway) mobile OS on the planet. This momentum--and the stickiness is brings--should be enough to help it weather any storms, right?

As a happy Android user, I hope so. Unfortunately, I'm not so sure.

Again, the myriad of challenges facing Android have been well-documented. Intellectual property (IPR) wrangling. A potentially resurgent Windows Phone. Fragmentation of various types (UI, form factor, upgrade schedules). Developers' struggles with the Android Market, ranging from not getting paid (fully), to not seeing search work, to not being happy about the recent updates to the market's structure. These are major problems, to be sure. However, they aren't its only problems. In fact, a number of others may be more worrying for what they say about the health of ecosystem that's essential to Android's health.

  • IPR. Okay, I mentioned this earlier. Regardless, it's important enough to warrant another mention. Google execs have positioned the patent suits against Android as a quasi-conspiracy. While it might be a stretch to argue that the efforts are coordinated, it is clear that we're talking about something very different from the storied Nokia vs. Qualcomm or Nokia vs. Apple suits. With Android embroiled in dozens of suits, the ecosystem, as a whole, is under attack. Licensing is obviously one defense. Whether or not it's an option, however, the result is an added production cost where part of Android's appeal has always been low (er, non-existent) direct licensing fees.
  • Platform Prerequisites. Think about some of the recent enhancements to core applications in the mobile OS space recently. Apple's addition of iMessenger and iCloud. RIM's BBM Music launch. Google's Music Beta and app market improvements. You can even throw in Microsoft's Skype acquisition, given the potential it holds going forward. Together, they point to an emerging set of foundational features for a successful platform: cloud content syncing, music and video acquisition tools, messaging, a solid app store experience. You could add in more (such as simple notifications and OTA syncing) but these tell a clear story about Android. Third-party applications and content stores can fill these needs, and may need to do so for Android fans... while competitors are taking them (or already have them) in-house.
  • Competition. So, when you think about the competition facing Android, the first names to come to mind are likely iOS, Windows Phone and maybe BlackBerry or even high-end feature phones. What about bada? The OS the Korean government wants to spin out? Android variants (like Baidu's Yi)? Dark horse alternatives like webOS or Alibaba's Aliyun? GridOS? Boot2Gecko? The--not quite exhaustive--point is simple: Android's success cannot be denied, but it's far from without competition. More importantly, if manufacturers sense conflicts within the Android foodchain (from added licensing costs to lacking features) there are plenty ways for them to hedge their bets.
  • Early Days. Here in the United States, where everyone on the train or in the airport, has a smartphone, it's easy to forget that they're still the exception... and not the norm. Recent estimates, however, suggest that U.S. smartphone penetration sits somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent. The global number? Well below that; there are billions upon billions of featurephone and plain old dumbphone users still be converted. This is, in part, what competitors to today's top OSes are banking on; the fact that the race for smartphone dominance is going to be an ultra-marathon rather than a 25 yard dash.
  • Costs. Let's come back to the U.S. Can there be any doubt that substantial handset subsidies (and entry tier data plans) have driven smartphone adoption? That's right, price drives adoption. Now, let's go back to thinking about the rest of the world. Driving smartphone adoption in the (likely unsubsidized) emerging markets that have driven wireless usage for the past few years will depend on costs more than pricing. If these costs are driven up by a series of necessary licensing arrangements, the impact is obvious. If competing OSes yield a cheaper device because they've no need for those licenses or they include core functionality which may otherwise need to be sourced (paid for) elsewhere, the impact is just as obvious.

And where do developers fit in? They've been rightly positioned as the lifeblood of any successful OS; their absence being blamed, in part, for the lack of success of competing platforms. For the most part, Android's potential woes aren't likely to directly impact them or raise their costs. Sure, folks like Lodsys are looking to extract licensing fees from them, but that applies to other platforms as well.  However, developers go where they can best monetize their applications. Regardless of how easy it is to develop for them, this is why iOS and Android enjoy a solid developer base. If manufacturers begin hedging their bets or find the costs associated with Android to be onerous, developers could follow suit (or, at least, be incented to)...to be benefit of competitors or OS-agnostic platforms like HTML5.

None of these issues, alone, is enough to derail Android's success. Together, they're worrisome... if not unique to Google's mobile OS. Our friend Facebook, for example, has spent time building up its own patent base, bulking up its comms and messaging features, addressing costs (remember 0.facebook.com?), and courting developers in an effort to keep people engaged. In other words, it knows that continued success in any market--much less a still nascent one--requires continued progress on multiple fronts, not just a hope that momentum will carry you forward.

Peter Jarich is the Service Director leading Current Analysis telecom infrastructure practice. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.