How Android Imitates Windows

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) thought it could make the mobile world a better place with the Android software. The recipe for revolution was simple: Provide a highly capable software platform in a very open development model, and then watch as handset designers and service providers jostle to squeeze every ounce of potential goodness out of this inviting solution.

Sounds great in theory, only it hasn't exactly worked out that way.

Back to reality
Instead, profit motives on several levels of the mobile food chain have created a messy political picture. Consumers should be enjoying the fruits of a rapid release schedule but are often stuck in a purgatory of old software -- created by the very openness that was meant to keep them all up to date.

You know how millions of users, both consumers and corporations, are still using Windows XP despite the best efforts from Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) to sell them Vista and then Windows 7 to replace that old, crusty operating system? Google is experiencing the same thing, only on a much quicker schedule.

Microsoft made a commodity out of the PC, so you'd get roughly the same Windows XP experience running on a Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) laptop or a Lenovo desktop. But then Windows was just Windows -- why would you go through the hassle of upgrading when the old one worked well enough?

And now Google is stuck in a similar no-upgrade loop for similar reasons. The big losers are Android buyers.

Ruling with an iron fist -- or not
Apple
(Nasdaq: AAPL  ) keeps the vast majority of its mobile users on version 4 of its iOS software. The company works with a limited (albeit growing) number of networks and controls both hardware and software in-house. This gives Apple tremendous power to update your handset's software as it deems proper. Bug-fix releases and major new features get pushed out like clockwork.

By contrast, Google can only publish bleeding-edge software and then hope that the rest of the ecosystem works it all out. For example, Samsung reportedly has a 2.2 version of Android ready to go for the Galaxy S version it ships out to Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Mobile, dubbed the Samsung Vibrant. But the handset is stuck with version 2.1 and its much-inferior performance because Samsung supposedly feels that an upgrade would dilute the value of the upcoming Vibrant 4G+ model, which may run either 2.2 or 2.3 and will use that fact as a selling point over the older and probably cheaper Vibrant.

Google has given the handset makers and service providers enough rope to create a big, tangled mess. For the most part, even major version updates don't matter much and users should be able to get along just fine with older software. But it's borderline irresponsible to deny upgrades for reasons of politics or planned obsolescence when a simple software push breathes new life into an otherwise obsolete model. That's the case with Android 2.2, and Google can't do a darn thing to make its partners run those updates.

The state of Android affairs
Most Android devices run version 2.2 now, which is great, but about 48% are still stuck with highly inferior versions, according to the latest data from popular contacts-sharing application Bump. For what it's worth, most handsets are perfectly capable of running 2.2, as my downright Methuselahan myTouch 3G proved, by getting a new lease on life with that update.

Of course, 2.2 is old news by now, as Froyo got a Gingerbread sibling last month. Some 0.4% of all handsets are running it now. If this were an Apple update, you'd already see an overwhelming majority using the latest and greatest, giving app developers and gadget consumers less of a moving target.

So Google's grand experiment is backfiring in some spectacular ways. That doesn't stop Android phones from selling like hotcakes, though related issues have put a damper on tablet sales. You buy an iPad, you know exactly what you get -- warts and all.

But certain killer apps just aren't available on early Android tablets. Steve Jobs likes to use Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) streaming as a selling point for most of his mobile devices, but Android doesn't have a unified copy-protection model, so Netflix simply can't publish a streaming solution that covers 'em all. That's a lost marketing opportunity. It's also just one example from a growing pile.

You can't always get what you want
Google probably figured that upgrades would work themselves through the system quickly because of the implicit user benefits. That's how the company runs internally, after all -- update early and often and then collect the increased traffic and advertising revenue that follows from an improved end-user experience. But the many layers of conflicting motivations between Google and you have led that strategy astray.

This complexity undermines the Android platform as a whole. You can buy any recent-model iPhone knowing you'll be able to play Angry Birds on it. But which Android handsets can or can't deliver a smooth pig-killing experience? It was impossible to play the game on my phone under Android 1.6, but it works when running 2.2. Confusion is the sworn enemy of sales.

How much greater could the Android success story have been with a better version-management strategy? Discuss in the comments section below.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Netflix and Google but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool has written puts on Apple. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2011, at 12:52 PM, TheGreatLorenzo wrote:

    Thank you for the most honest, straightforward evaluation of the Android OS I've read this year. Most technocrats won't touch this subject, fear of the great Google, or its army of Fandroids. I can't be sure.

    But the problem is even worse than what you see at first glance. Even Nexus One buyers, who were sold the N1 with the promise of reliable updates, are mad as hell because Gingerbread has not been "OTA-ed" to their unlocked, "developer phone" investment. For a taste of the disappointment check out what they're saying at Google's own Mobile Help forums: http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Google+Mobile/thread?t...

    Add to that the mountain of complaints coming from Nexus S buyers who are experiencing several annoying bugs. "Tangled mess," is an understatement. This could take a while straighten out.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2011, at 5:38 PM, xmmj wrote:

    @ author -

    I appreciate some interesting points you mention. HOwever, I think you do make one basic error in the analysis. You write:

    "{[Google] Provide a highly capable software platform in a very open development model, and then watch as handset designers and service providers jostle to squeeze every ounce of potential goodness out of this inviting solution"

    Yet that is not their motivation. The propose of Android is not as you say. Rather, it is to drive advertising revenue to Google.

    Now I have no issue with a company making profits. I am, after all, an investor. I only suggest that fans of Android realize that this is the motivation - not some romantic ideal of "open software" for the masses.

    It was the head of the Angry Birds team who commented that Android is less open than some realize, and that the purchase model for software does not work on Android (i.e. only the ad supported model does).

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