Android: Much Coolness, But 3 Big Problems

27 Comments

Like all the other geeks in attendance, I couldn’t help myself from letting out an audible “whooo” when Google showed off an Android phone demo Wednesday that linked Street View to a compass (see video below). Sure it was just a demo, but watching the virtual-reality performance of photo-maps linked to hand motions shows how cool new applications could be when they start by running on a high-end mobile phone.

Delivering lots of cool new apps is the promise of Android, the open source mobile OS project from Google. With a much-improved iPhone-ish look and feel, the base Android platform seems ready for prime time and on schedule to launch somewhere, sometime, later this year. But I still see three big problems for Android apps that could keep the add-on market small for the foreseeable future.

Specifically the problems are:

— how many carriers are really going to offer Android phones?
— how will users find Android applications?
— how will developers convince users to take a chance and download their app?

Until Google can help answer those questions, Android apps are probably going to lag far behind those provided by big carriers on their captive hardware/software offerings, especially those designed for the already popular iPhone.

With a big crowd overall and packed rooms at Android-specific discussions, the Google I/O conference Wednesday showed there is great interest from the developer community for the idea of an open-source platform for the development of mobile apps. And the list of early winners in Google’s Android app development contest shows a wide range of creative thinking, with developers using the features of mobility and base apps like maps to build new, rich and sometimes quirky programs that would likely never get past the first gatekeeper at AT&T Wireless or Verizon.

But getting back to the problems — without a committed list of service providers, Google doesn’t have much of a market to offer developers yet. Similarly, the company’s silence on any kind of an apps marketplace means developers might be on their own when it comes to marketing their one-off ideas, adding a huge degree of difficulty, especially for smaller shops.

And the lack of an application certification process (Google said Wednesday that users will be asked to certify an app themselves at install) means another big hurdle for developers to cross, namely convincing users to trust that their app is safe, won’t break their phone or transmit personal info to undisclosed locations.

Seems like a lot to ask from users, especially those in the U.S., who historically haven’t been able to do much with their phones other than download new ringtones. Add education to the list of above problems and you see why I think this market is going to stay small for some time.

UPDATE: It looks like the Google folks may have been more forthcoming about an Android Apps store in later panels at the I/O show, according to this post from the Register. (I only sat through the first panel led by developer advocate Jason Chen, who when questioned about such a store agreed that “distribution is hard” and that Google was working on something, but didn’t have anything to announce.) We have a message in to Google PR to clarify, and will update if and when we hear back. UPDATE 2: Here is an official statement from a Google spokesperson:

It would be a great benefit to the Android community to provide a place where people can go to safely and securely download content and where a billing system would allow developers to get paid for their effort. We wouldn’t have done our job if we didn’t provide something that helps developers get distribution. We have nothing to announce at this time.

Paul Kapustka, former managing editor for GigaOM, now has his own blog at Sidecut Reports.

27 Comments

Counsel

The android looks promising, but so do many technologies. The deployed model will be what drives sales past the first few months.

The iPhone is nice, but it is a network-phone (not a smartphone). Try using it when you have no mobile signal–not so smart then is it?

The HTC models are nice, but their software video rendering is not suitable for my uses. Older HTC models may have a video chip, and video on those models is far superior to that of those models using software rendering.

My point?

The software, however great, may be crippled by the hardware. Video users may not want Android by HTC if “software rendering” makes video playback “painful.” While not “Android’s” fault, android would be, in effect, supporting no video hardware or inefficient software rendering. I would recommend that Google put out a minimum spec to receive an “Android” stamp of some sort to help guarantee quality of use and performance.

So while Android might be great, the hardware it is on may also have a significant effect on the review of the phone and on the frenzy surrounding the deployed models.

I’ll wait and see.

mrblogdotorg

There are something like 1 billion Java-enabled mobile phones, but nobody uses it. So having T-Mobile (etc.) offer a phone with Android-capabilities is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Android’s success.

It’s not a carrier problem per se. I see it as an “ecosystem” problem. If Apple gets their iPhone application distribution via iTunes right, they could easily have more success in terms of use of third-party applications/services, despite being limited to a single carrier (theoretically smaller addressable market). Iow, there could easily be more Andorid-enabled phones, but less third-party app use/success, without an app distribution “ecosystem”.

Paul Kapustka

Thanks everyone for the OHA references and commitments; I guess I am always skeptical, maybe too much so, about partnerships and associations, and believe more in shipping or promised products. I also wonder how warmly Android will be received by the “open” telcos Verizon and AT&T now that Google is an investor in Clearwire, with its nationwide WiMax network.

Maybe Android will find more success on higher-end smartphones or MIDs (mobile Internet devices) still to come? Maybe that will be an easier nut to crack than to compete against corner stores and subsidized phones.

TareX

The iPhone got its initial success from the fact of it being “something from the future”, with its high-res screen, high quality graphics and incredibly fast UI. That was last year. Today, Android has matched the speed of the iPhone, and added the much required OPENNESS. Everything is open, the applications, the carrier, the UI is heavily customizable, and the web browser is like Safari without the limitations, and surpasses it in quality and speed.

Add to that the cool “magic touch” Google has.

I have no doubt in Android’s success, especially that it already has the big manufacturers in the OHA. The HTC Dream, being the first Android phone, will earn Android all the publicity it needs in its debut.

Jose Miguel Cansado

1. Operators are sharing revenue with Apple to have exclusivity. What telco wouldn’t want to have the only current challenger to iPhone? No Operator is going to close their network to Android in US and less in Asia and Europe.

2. Where do Windows Mobile or Symbian users find their applications? Just google and download. Being Linux based, I would not be surprised a package manager as Yum or Apt was embedded. It would not be too different from how Google offer 3rd-party Widgets for Google Desktop: easy to find, easy to install.

3. How do developers convince people to download Windows Mobile, Symbian or simply PC applications? Why would Android apps be different? Security is always a concern whenever you download and install an app, but Android is no different from the issues you can have today on a smartphone or a PC with Windows, Mac OS or Linux

iPhone has over-delivered on its hype, and I bet Android will do too.
http://tech-talk.biz/2008/05/29/my-next-phone/

Paul

It shouldn’t be hard to drive Android app downloads. Google can:
a. Pre-load Picasa, Gmail, blogs and maps, then use these as beachheads for expansion.
b. Build in a “Cool new Google apps” tool to keep people aware of available stuff (half the trouble is finding it). The tool could even handle downloads in advance, and let users opt out of an instant installation.
c. Work with carriers to promote apps directly (carriers stand to gain loyalty, incremental fees, etc.)
d. Integrate/sync more information than just about anyone else, creating apps people will work to get.

Ben

‘Whooo!’ is about all I can say too! Even though the platform may have some difficulty getting distributed, Google has the arm power and the clout to push it out there big time. Especially considering how many cool features it has got.

H

I find that the web crowd get easily excited and engaged in every Google move. It would be great if they built a better toilet. The Google toilet. It will change the world. Geeks are ‘on’ board. It would be an open platform.

With the massive bank account, where has Google hit it out of the park aside from their fantastic search and ad platform? Gmail is competitive depending on taste, Maps is competitive, then….what.

Android. Open. What does it offer me as a developer that I can’t get today with Symbian, or LiMo, or WiMo, or RIM, or… The wireless OS space is very competitive, unlike the computing OS space, and the OS’s are highly functional and have very strong developer programs.

The industry does not need another OS just for OS sake. Too many OS’s is one of the current industry problems. Every phone with every rev level of an OS needs to be exhaustively tested against the network configuration (every GSM network is not the same, every CDMA network is not the same), application portals, etc. ‘Open’ from an OS perspective does not mean much when the existing OS’s are well developed, have very large communities, substantial developer support, and are cost effective.

The industry needs less fragmentation, not more. Google would do more good (less evil) in this case if they could use their brand name and clout to push to solve one of the basic existing REAL mobile developer problems – 1. Discovery, 2. Micropayments, 3. Device/OS/Rev fragmentation/porting, 4. Data plan costs. Adding more noise to the system with another OS solves no problem.

Apple understands it. Yes they add an OS (to control the distribution of the benefits that will accrue as they solve 1,2,3, and 4.) but they are solving 1. and 2., using their clout to improve 4., and when they win, will by default, have solved 3.

My 3 bits.

Daniel Hartmann

1. Sprint and T-Mobile are OHA Members so they will be on board, Verzions commitment to LiMo in my opinion is pretty weak. Or how would you name wholeheartedly endorsing and considering an alternative in one sentence:

“We are wholeheartedly endorsing LiMo’s approach, and we are investing company resources, but we see the opportunity to have both the OHA and LiMo succeed and/or work together,” said Malady. “LiMo is our platform of choice, but if there comes a point where we see there is benefit for our customers we will use OHA as well.” (http://www.linux-watch.com/news/NS9542476682.html)

Ralph de la Vega CEO AT&T Mobility: “I think it’s going to be a good option for us and a good option for our customers,” (http://www.latimes.com/technology/la-fiw-google3apr03,0,4635856.story)

Draw your own conclusions. And of course for other countries there are some quite strong ones on board also.

Stuart Henshall

Hmmmm aren’t podcasts distributed through iTunes? Could iTunes be the delivery vehicle? At the moment it is just exciting to see something emerging. Even better if they get it into users hands.

Niraj

While the article raised some interesting points, I’d argue that the iPhone suffers the same carrier issue, and Google has proven with iGoogle that it knows how to take user contributions and surface what people want in a pretty effective manner. I’m sure they wouldn’t drop the ball on finding a way to highlight interesting/useful apps.

Chris

Google, much like Apple, seems to have the magic touch. I have to believe that their “coolness” will win over developers and consumers alike. Of course that only settles 2 of the 3 issues in question. It’ll be interesting to see how Google will approach the carriers. Especially considering Apple’s questionable decisions when they released their iPhone.

Curtis

Paul,

You make some interesting points, but i’ll play devil’s advocate for a few:

1. Distribution of Android phones – TMobile is on board, plus if the phones are unlocked, no carrier will refuse providing service.

2. Applications – most users won’t care. Voice is still the killer app. Besides, consumers hate downloading applications so it really isn’t all that wise to develop downloadable applications. Cloud based applications are the way to go for developers who plan their products, market opportunity, and supporting business model.

3. I agree, not very many. :-)

I also think you overstate the success of the iPhone. It is big in the US for sure, but it is disapointing on a worldwide basis. Note that I own an iPhone, but I recognize that as “cool” as it is for web access, it’s a marginal smart phone.

To close, the symbian operating system is the real target as the largest number of smart phones are symbian based. This includes BlackBerry’s for the record. Hence Google’s android targets symbian, windows mobile, and then (maybe) the iPhone. It is very premature to mention the iPhone when discussing cell phone operating systems since the iPhone is nothing more than a rounding error worldwide. This article reminds me of many dire pc predictions back in the 80’s when the mac first got hot. The mac is still a long way behind.

Good read nonetheless! :-)

Ben Feldman

Paul,

Not sure if this is what you meant by a committed list of service providers, but both T-Mobile and Sprint are founding members of the Open Handset Alliance. Sprint’s been pretty silent for the most part, but T-Mobile has said a few times that they will support everything Android has to offer and the community has to offer.

Outside of the U.S. (where it’s expected that Android phones will launch first), China Mobile, KDDI, NTT DoCoMo, Telecom Italia and (perhaps most importantly) Telefonica are also founding members of the OHA.

That’s a guarantee of Android-powered devices in a number of different countries, and some pretty big name carriers. And other carriers have “expressed interested,” so the list might grow as time goes on.

As a developer myself, I’m personally not concerned, and I really haven’t seen any concern from the community about this.

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