Many of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android hardware partners, including Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF), LG, and HTC, have been caught inflating their benchmark scores. According to AnandTech, several Android handsets, like Samsung's latest Galaxy Note 3, are loaded with code designed to cheat common testing software.
Fortunately for Google, these underhanded tactics should make little difference to Android's advance. Ironically, they highlight one of Android's greatest strengths -- a fundamental advantage the mobile operating system has over Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS.
The average smartphone buyer doesn't care about specs
Simply put, the average would-be smartphone buyer doesn't care about benchmarks. They don't consider clock speeds, or think about the number of cores the processor on their latest smartphone sports.
Apple's newest iPhone, the iPhone 5S, is unique in that it has a 64-bit processor, making it the most powerful smartphone on the planet. Yet, this is one fact that you won't find emphasized in Apple's advertising: Apple understands that numbers don't sell phones.
This year, at a Goldman Sachs conference, Apple's CEO Tim Cook explained why Apple doesn't care to talk about specs:
"The PC industry over the years, the way that companies competed were two things: specs and price. And so people would want to say, 'I've got the largest drive,' or, 'I've got the fastest processor,' ... The truth is, customers want a great experience, and they want quality ... that's rarely a function of any [specs] ... These are things ... companies invent because they can't have a great experience ... Do you know the speed of an [iPad chip]? ... Does it really matter at the end of the day?"
Cook's reasoning isn't confined to Apple. Motorola's latest phone, the Moto X, is underpowered compared to its Android rivals, and yet, the phone has been well reviewed. Rather than spend money on improving the device's internals, Google's subsidiary chose to do something different -- offering a stripped down interface with a highly customizable exterior.
So why do companies like Samsung care?
That raises the obvious question: If consumers aren't swayed by clock speeds, why go through the trouble of trying to game them? I can't speak for the companies in particular, but I think it's reasonable to assume that boosting benchmark scores is simply another way to get ahead of the competition.
Although it may be tiny, there is undoubtedly some subset of smartphone buyers that considers hardware performance. Among these consumers, better benchmark scores might just result in a few extra sales.
Cutthroat competition produces innovation
As Ars Technica points out, Samsung's Note 3 is an incredibly powerful handset, even factoring out Samsung's special software. Although it sports the same Qualcomm processor as the rival LG G2, an extra gigabyte of RAM gives it the edge. Samsung's willingness to inflate the scores of an already powerful phone highlights something about the Android market: competition is cutthroat.
Unlike Apple, Samsung has to worry about consumer defection. For Apple, consumers looking for an iOS device have only one choice: the iPhone. But Samsung's Galaxy phones run Android, just like literally hundreds of other handsets. If the latest Galaxy handset isn't up to their liking, they can easily make the jump to a phone manufactured by LG, Sony, HTC, or any other Android OEM. Although Samsung phones account for the majority of Android handsets sold today, that might not always be the case.
While the threat of competition may not benefit Samsung shareholders, it's great for the Android ecosystem in general, and by extension, Google. With multiple Android hardware makers competing so fiercely against one another, Android handsets have improved rapidly.
Phablets, for example, came out of the Android universe, as Samsung tinkered with different screen sizes. Motorola, with its Droid Maxx, has pushed the limits of smartphone battery life, while Sony was the first company to offer a water-resistant smartphone and tablet. In China, upstart companies like Xiaomi have been able to offer powerful, dirt-cheap handsets.
Google is leveraging the power of the open software model
By letting multiple hardware manufacturers use its mobile operating system, Google is leveraging the basic laws of economics against Apple. Sure, Google's hardware partners must compete with the iPhone, but the true competition is against each other.
That intense competition may occasionally result in some unfortunate outcomes, such as Samsung's alleged rigging of benchmark scores. Yet, more important are the innovations that have been produced by that competition; in the end, that could give Android the advantage over iOS.