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Can Google Inc. Fix Its Android Mistakes?

By Adam Levy – Jul 6, 2014 at 2:00PM

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Google will exact more control over its new versions of Android.

For all of Google's (GOOGL -0.15%) (GOOG -0.19%) success with Android, it's had its flaws and failures.

Google has had trouble keeping OEMs like Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) under its thumb as they tweak the user interface. Additionally, Android has become increasingly fragmented with each new update Google puts out. So, the company is looking to avoid these problems with Android Wear, Android Auto, and Android TV.

Can Google seize more control over Android without doing the Apple (AAPL 0.83%) approach of making the devices itself? Or, will the move backfire with more OEMs adapting the more malleable Android Mobile to fit their new devices?

These aren't the droids you're looking for
Despite controlling some 80% of the smartphone market, Google has little control over how Android is used. The company doesn't even have control over which version of Android is being used, which has resulted in a huge amount of fragmentation among its user base.

There are six different Android builds with a double-digit share of the Android market. This means that each time a developer, or even Google, wants to roll out an update, it has to cover at least six different types of users. This also means that some Android users will be left in the dark because their version of Android can't support certain features. This is a big issue for developers.

In fact, only 24% of Android phones and tablets are running a version of Android that's compatible with Android Wear.

Comparatively, Apple is extremely effective at pushing out updates for iOS. Nearly 90% of iPhone users have upgraded to the newest iOS, while almost 85% of iPad users have clicked the update button. Certainly, it's much easier for Apple to push updates, considering its vertical integration.

As a result, Apple shouldn't have software compatibility issues with any wearable devices it might release. It's likely that 99% (if not 100%) of all iPhone owners would be able to use the rumored iWatch at launch.

What's the difference between these watches?
One advantage of Android Mobile, for OEMs at least, is that it was highly customizable. Samsung took advantage of that fact by overlaying its TouchWiz UI on Android, giving it a completely new look for users. Other OEMs had their own custom user interfaces as well.

These custom interfaces provided a level of differentiation for these otherwise extremely similar products. Samsung even went so far that it attracted the ire of Google, which is, perhaps, why Google is now clamping down on these new versions of Android.

While some OEMs will certainly experiment with Android Wear -- Samsung and LG already launched their watches -- they'll face competition from OEMs that decide to go a different route.

Apple's iWatch will certainly offer a differentiated user experience from all the other OEMs, and Google's choice to keep Android Wear less open may result in more people choosing the iWatch instead.

Samsung has already released a version of its Galaxy Gear smartwatch that uses its own Tizen OS. Samsung will likely adopt the strategy that worked for it in smartphones, releasing tons of different products at different price points and with different operating systems. Its Tizen, or adapted Android Mobile smart watch, might sell better than the Android Wear version due to their differentiation. That's certainly not what Google wants.

A hard problem to solve
Google opened Pandora's box when it released Android as open-source. It ceded control of the platform it had proliferated.

Google is certainly going to avoid a similar fate with Android Wear, as well as its television and automobile OSes. It might be too late, however, for Google to really take control of those platforms, as alternative OSes have already made their way into wearables, smart TVs, set-top boxes, and cars.

Google's goal is admirable in that it solves a user problem: different devices from different manufacturers have the same interface with Android TV or Android Auto. But, a large OEM like Samsung or Apple is more capable of solving that problem. Both are going to do what they can to differentiate their products from the rest, once again leaving the competition (and Google) behind.

Adam Levy owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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