John S. Wilson of Policy Diary sees some strong similarities between Google’s mobile operating system Android: They’re both open, free (aside from patent issues), and just a utility. Android means different things to different companies, and ultimately, this could be Android’s downfall into irrelevance.

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Google’s mobile operating system Android is the new Linux: open, free (aside from patent issues), and just a utility. It’s completely worthless as a brand in which to build upon. Unfortunately for Google, Android means different things to different companies. For HTC and Samsung it’s beginning to be a patent mess. And for Amazon, it’s just a customizable layer that doesn’t even deserve branding, acknowledgment, or universal support. And ultimately this will be Android’s downfall into irrelevance.

Android, based originally on a kernel of Linux, and backed by 84 hardware and software partners, as part of the Open Handset Alliance, was first envisioned to be the next open mobile standard. Google presumed, with good reason, that if they were able to get industry consensus there would be less compatibility issues, more sales, and a much higher chance of long-term success. Well, one out of three ain’t bad.

Sales we can’t argue with. According to Nielsen in their latest report, Android accounts for a 43% share of the smartphone market. And the recent purchase of Motorola Mobility (MMI) by Google has led many analysts to believe that Google is saying to the world two critical things: (1) We’re all in on Android; and (2) Securing more patents will help buttress Android from patent suits. But it also showed a significant weakness. “The MMI purchase is the result of Google’s miscalculations about the way value is captured in mobile computing. These strategic missteps placed Google in a position of weakness and forced it into a costly and desperate move,” said Horace Dediu, noted mobile industry analyst.

Android Becomes Linux

It’s fitting that Android was birthed from Linux. Long thought to be the crown jewel of the “open software approach,” Linux is an operating system that is completely free and the source code may be modified at will and given away or sold. It was going to herald in a new era of desktop computing and conquer Microsoft in the 80s, claimed fanboys. Of course, no such thing happened. In case you hadn’t heard Microsoft went on to have a little bit of success, and Linux pretty much became destined for servers, where it mostly resides today. In fact, the competitive advantages that Linux held over other operating systems — free to use, easy and legal to modify, and can work on nearly any device — led to its being relegated to being just a utility to be manipulated by any manufacturer’s fancy, and an even smaller brand identity among mainstream consumers. Turned out people didn’t really care if their operating system was open or not; they just wanted it to work well.

Android is heading in the same direction. Fragmentation is a big issue (One that Google has acknowledged). Because so many partners are using different versions of Android, updating them when they see fit (as opposed to on a unified schedule), and naturally have different hardware limitations, the Android that developers are expecting isn’t necessarily the Android that their apps can play well with. A recent poll of 250 Android developers found that 86% were concerned about fragmentation, and 56% said it was a meaningful or “huge” problem, an increase over the previous 3 months.

Amazon Redefines Android

If that weren’t bad enough, Amazon’s new tablet, the Kindle Fire, which is built on Android — though you’d be hard-pressed to know — won’t officially support Android apps outside of Amazon App Store. It’s the equivalent of buying a Windows PC at Best Buy and not being able to use Excel on it unless, of course — you guessed it — Excel was also purchased at Best Buy. I don’t fault Amazon for this. It’s actually a stroke of genius guaranteeing that Kindle Fire users will only be buying their matches from Amazon. Users, or detractors, can put the blame squarely where it deserves to be — on Google. By making Android so open as to become a brand-less utility free to be consumed, modified, reimagined, and devoid of the competitive advantage it was born of — namely, openness — Google has allowed Pandora’s box to be opened.

And what’s awaiting inside? Amazon, in a bid to make it “easier” to surf the web on the Fire, has decided to pre-cache user web browsing, meaning use their servers to communicate user information to the site destination. The implications? “Amazon will capture and control every Web transaction performed by Fire users. Every page they see, every link they follow, every click they make, every ad they see is going to be intermediated by one of the largest server farms on the planet, said  Apple engineer Chris Espinosa. How’s that for open?

And it gets better. Not only is Amazon changing the purpose of Android –— to proliferate an open mobile operating system — they’re also changing the profit model on which it was created. Espinosa goes on to say:

“[Amazon doesn't] use Google’s web browser; they can intermediate user click through on Google search results so Google doesn’t see the actual user behavior. Google’s whole play of promoting Android in order to aggregate user behavior patterns to sell to advertisers is completely subverted by Amazon’s intermediation.”

Google gave Android away for free because the more services they could bake into Android, the more advertising revenue they could generate. In the first quarter of this year ad revenue accounted for 97% of Google’s profit (a typical percentage). So Google can’t afford for Amazon’s Kindle Fire to be successful. Not only would that kill the notion that ‘open’ is the future of the mobile space as much as Linux was the future of the desktop, it would also set a precedent: while Google may need Android,  Android definitely doesn’t need Google.

John S. Wilson is a health policy analyst and editor of Policy Diary, a weekly health policy blog. He can be reached at john@policydiary.com or on Twitter: @johnswilson1

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  1. @TheCeeJayLouis Sunday, October 2, 2011

    well, you make fine and valid points. however, that is not to say all of this erl happen for certain. Android certainly has potential and publicity than Linux ever did and Amazon’s lone gunman act doesn’t necessarily spell real trouble for Google.

  2. The fact Fire skips native Android Browser doesn’t change a thing: Still users will use html5 optimized web version of gmail and use google for searches – one way or another google will get information about these people even on fire.

    1. Thanks for reading. That may be true. But if folks use Fire’s Silk browser then Google apparently won’t be getting as much data about users as they normally would. There’s still some debate about this but more than one engineer has stated it. Additionally, why use Google Music when you can use Amazon which will be baked in? That’s going to be the true test: whether the convenience of Amazon’s services overshadows that of Google’s.

  3. It’s more like Android is the new Windows XP. Its the only OS that can and will duplicate XP staggering marketshare and dominance.

    What Android is doing has nothing to do with Linux’s traditional server market.

  4. Which fanboys thought Linux was going to over take Microsoft in the 80s? Last I checked Linux didn’t even exist until 1991.

      1. So what did you mean to type then? I had not even seen a big focus on the Linux desktop until the mid 00’s. The focus was on servers.

  5. “ultimately this will be Android’s downfall into irrelevance”

    What exactly do you mean by irrelevance? Do you mean that Android is going away and will not be a major OS 10-20 years down the road?

    And sorry, but why is a health policy analyst writing about Android? I hate to say it, but this article writes a lot about what is wrong with android, which there is some validity to, but it omits many critical facts on the other side of it. To state that android will be irrelevant just sounds like an ignorant view.

  6. John Harrington, Jr. Monday, October 3, 2011

    Has anyone heard about the tremendous security threat that comes with using an HTC Android device? If you use an EVO 3D, EVO 4G, Thunderbolt, EVO Shift 4G, MyTouch 4G Slide, a Sensation, or other HTC Android device, you should read up fast before your information falls into the wrong hands: http://bit.ly/nz5hsh

    1. This is not an adroid issue per se – it is a supplier issue – this flaw is inherent in HTC’s implementation of Android, and not an Android issue at all – just wanted to clarify that..

  7. Amazon redefining Android. Wouldn’t that be true for anyone who chooses to use the OS? Samsung, Sony, Motorola…. I think that Android becoming Linux is streching it a bit. The function of Linux in the 90’s to the functions of android today are vastly different. I do agree that the some of the concepts of both OS’s are similar. Android will continue to thrive in our new digital age. Considering the advancements, and prices being dropped, then cap it off with online tutorials on how to “root” (hack) your android. I think Android will probably make us all Androids in the next few years – outpacing Apple because of the very reason you outline in your well written peice. It’s openness.

  8. You can tell when its close to iPhone release time. The Android hit articles pick up.

  9. Trusttheman85 Monday, October 3, 2011

    You make a solid argument about Amazon basically snubbing Google out of its own open source baby, and how the success can possibly have others follow suit, Which can have negative effects on Android as a whole. But Android as a brand drifting into obscurity seems highly highly unlikely, and honestly a ridiculous notion. Yes technically “Android” is nothing more then a utility, but to say Android is worthless as a brand to build upon, really makes question weather this article is just for sensationalism. The phrase “Android device” has become a huge branding for many. Enough to where competition has chosen to take legal action to halt innovation.

    Amazon has its own reasons for trying to create its own stake as a brand, so i can see there reasoning for there move. But trust me, many people will still be branding it an “android device”

  10. So if Android is going to “downfall into irrelevance”, what are Samsung, HTC, Motorola, LG, and other non-Apple manufacturers going to do for an OS? Apple likely will not license iOS on those phones. Are you thinking we are going to move into a world where everyone carries and iPhone (and perhaps also wears black turtlenecks and bluejeans to work)?

    Equating Linux with Android misses a few obvious points, starting with the fact that very few computers are sold preloaded with one of the Linux distributions – however, very many phones are sold preloaded with Android variants. It also misses the fact that getting an operating system for a phone is significantly more difficult than for a computer – you can’t simply reload your iPhone with a new one (unlike your Droid, which you have limited choices, or even your Mac, where you can completely wipe OSX off of it and load Windows or many Linux variants).

    I’m afraid you appear to be very under-researched in this area of technology. Stick to health policy analysis.

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