The only thing rising faster than Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android right now is the blood pressure of Cleveland Cavaliers fans in front of LeBron's decision tonight. Thanks in large part to huge promotions across each U.S. carrier, with hugely popular flagship models at Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) and Sprint (NYSE: S ) , the operating system is seeing unparalleled smartphone sales growth.
Spread like wildfire
Android's amazing growth curve can be summed up in one word: distribution. Major carriers aside from AT&T have been looking for a major phone to anchor their product line and compete with Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone. Also, major handset manufacturers like HTC, Samsung, and Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) were themselves taken by surprise by the success of Apple's impressive mobile operating system. These manufacturers specialized in older "feature phones" that required more hardware know-how and less software expertise. With Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows Mobile looking more and more dated, Android was the only option for handset manufacturers to compete with Apple's talisman.
So Android spread like a virus across the mobile phone world. In contrast to Apple, which tightly controls the carriers and launch of its products, Android's growth has been more akin to controlled chaos. There are different operating system versions on different handsets, and product launches have found their way to even the smallest carriers.
The Android: not magical
Steve Jobs gets lampooned for constantly describing Apple's products with adjectives like "magical" or "revolutionary." However, the words are an apt fit for what the company is trying to do. Apple wants to control every aspect of its platforms; everything has to work seamlessly for users right out of the box.
Android is the opposite approach. It feels more utilitarian, a work in progress. Since the phone launched at the end of 2008 it has seen a series of major updates incrementally upgrading functionality. Google has nailed an effective model, but there are still serious kinks to be worked out with the Android platform itself.
Get to music, Google!
The most glaring example of Google's and Apple's philosophies is their treatment of media. Apple is famous for its iTunes program, which allows easy synching of all media and also acts as a sales platform. Google comes with no media-synching software out of the box. Plug in your USB and drag and drop songs into a file folder. It's a process many users must find befuddling and suboptimal, especially those with iTunes experiences.
Granted, people could point to downloadable programs that serve this purpose, but the point is that most users won't take this step. This is an area where Google needs to take a page from Apple and ensure that the media experience is perfect from the phone's first boot-up. And don't tell me this isn't an important area: Users are abandoning their MP3 players en masse in favor of smartphones, and the 4.3-inch screens seen on some newer Android phones are geared for consuming visual media.
Google hates your desktop
Google has some natural aversion to the idea of a program like iTunes; it's trying to move users away from their desktops. Its Chrome operating system is completely browser-based; it wants to retrain users not to rely on their computers for storage. It wants the cloud to be the next dominant computing paradigm.
So it shouldn't shock anyone that Google's announcement of a music platform centered on streaming music from the cloud. While I do think streaming media is a powerful force in the future, it's no replacement for users being able to easily manage and access their own library of media on their computer. Besides, with wireless carriers placing data caps on users, streaming music becomes far less attractive.
Google needs its music service to be more than a cloud-based offering, it needs a media platform that's user-friendly enough to at least feign competition with iTunes. It's not too late either, with the product set to hit at the end of the year, there's still time to ensure its music offerings provide the full ease of use that smartphone users demand.
In a recent interview with the U.K.'s Telegraph, Google CEO Eric Schmidt bristled at the idea of a rivalry between Apple and Google: "We don't have a plan to beat Apple, that's not how we operate. … We're trying to do something different than Apple and the good news is that Apple is making that very easy."
He's right. The companies have taken extremely divergent paths in their mobile conquests. However, I believe that Google's relentless focus on pushing for features that push users into a Web-connected future, such as its planned music service, might be to the detriment of a better user experience that would keep early Android adopters locked into the platform.
iTunes not only acts as a media platform, it's a key differentiator for Apple. Like apps, it's a switching cost that users face if they want to abandon their iPhone in favor of another smartphone. If Google wants this generation of early adopters to stick with Android on their next upgrade, possibly after the iPhone bolts to Verizon, it needs to address its own media inadequacies, even if that means not acting as differently from Apple as it's used to.
Will a lack of a rich media-synching program scuttle Android? No, but it might just be that last hurdle that puts the operating system on par with Apple, and eliminates that Verizon "iPhone envy" once and for all.