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Google Is Missing an Android Opportunity on Non-smartphones

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Android is growing like crazy on smartphones — and stagnating everywhere else. That’s because Google is keeping its app store off all Android devices that aren’t smartphones. Such an approach is understandable only in the sense that it gives the company more control over the Android experience, but it will ultimately serve to send consumers in search of devices that offer them more freedom.

Take the ARCHOS Internet Tablet that debuted in September of last year. The 5-inch slate device offers a mobile web experience powered by the Android platform, yet doesn’t offer access to the Android Market — preventing its owners from making use of even the most basic Google apps, like Gmail.

So how does Google deem a device worthy of the Android Market? Wired reports that the Market won’t appear on a device if it’s missing key hardware elements that could hamper the full experience, such as a camera, persistent data connectivity or integrated GPS radio. I can understand such an approach — to a point. After all, it’s a downer to install a video-capture-and-upload app to a device that has no camera. In this case, the end user is no better off than if he or she didn’t have access to the Market in the first place.

I reached out to Google myself, expecting to be pointed to a simple list of what it takes to gain market access — Android is an open approach, right?  Not so much. Here was the response I got from a company spokesperson:

“We ask our partners to build compatible devices, and we provide handset manufacturers with a Compatibility Test Suite. This tests devices on a range of factors to ensure they are compatible with the Android platform. Only devices that pass this test will be allowed access to Android Market, which ensures only compatible devices can download apps from our market.”

And what, exactly, makes a device “compatible”? According to the same spokesperson:

“The Compatibility Test Suite tests the device on a number of different factors and covers a majority of the APIs to see if anything inadvertently got broken. Sometimes merely porting Android to a different processor platform reveals issues with the port. This test suite makes sure all the APIs are present and behave as expected.”

Hardly an illuminating answer, and precisely the sort of approach that needs to change if Google wants to move beyond smartphones.

One way to mitigate this issue is for Google to open up access to the Market but manage software installation at the application level. Google already has the tool set to do this — when you install an Android application, the Market provides a list of device functions the software will have access to (see image). If the Android Market already knows what hardware a given program requires, why not let that mechanism work at the application level? For example, if an application requires the presence of a camera, simply don’t allow for installation of it on a non-camera device. I’m sure there are technical issues I’m not addressing here, but from a strategic directive, this ought to be possible.

If Google did this, then consumers wouldn’t have to worry if their device meets an esoteric list of hardware requirements — they could enjoy the software for which their device is equipped. Developers could gain a wider audience and earn more revenue in this scenario because of more potential customers. Hardware makers could offer devices with more appeal and functionality through software titles. And Google would come out ahead by offering a better experience with fewer restrictions on a potentially larger range of devices.

Access to the Android Market doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. And given the open nature of Android, I don’t think it should be.

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42 Responses to “Google Is Missing an Android Opportunity on Non-smartphones”

  1. Amen! I’m shopping I-Touch alternatives, and my main hangup is that I can’t get a non-smartphone media device that has the full android marketplace! This sucks! I wouldn’t even consider apple if this was available. Google is making a huge mistake on this.

  2. jazmatician

    I know for a fact that the marketplace can detect phone features, up to and including screen size. I have a Sprint Touch, which came with a 320×240 screen running Windows Mobile. Android has been ported to that phone, and when I boot into Android, I can “Set” my screen resolution. If I use the native 320×240 screen, text is nice and sharp, but I can’t access all apps. If I configure my phone to pretend to be 480×320, lots more apps become available (at the cost of slightly blurry text).

  3. Okay, speaking of missing opportunities to broaden the Android hardware base…what about a realistic option for an Android phone without having the cost of a data plan? It would help in the teen market–no way am I shelling out $25 x 3 for my teens to have data plans, but it would be nice if they had an Android phone option. But $200/handset is the upper limit for that market, in my mind. Those iTouches sure seem to be selling well.

  4. It might be useful if you define what a non-smartphone device is? For example will you include feature phones in the non-smartphone category?

    Also please read other published articles around Android fragmentation. How would you make sure platform is not fragmented while supporting non-smartphone devices?

  5. The next priority for Android should definitely be tablets, since PC vendors will most certainly be eager to respond to Apple’s iPad. An Android tablet that lacks access to the thousands of apps in the Android Market will be at a significant disadvantage, when compared to an iPad that can run most/all of the existing iPhone apps.

    • I agree, but I believe the whole point of preventing access to the Market is to discourage use of Android on tablets. Google wants Chrome OS for that. Android’s freely available, so they can’t stop it from being on tablets, but if they restrict access to the store they accomplish more or less the same thing. From an OS standpoint it’s a silly strategy, but from an ad standpoint maybe not.

      • Maybe it’s better for Google to stick to their current strategy then. Chrome OS isn’t going to affect mobile consumer devices without an app store, dynamic, touch-capable UI and the need to be connected 100% and MeeGo, Canonical, WebOS, Symbian then have a chance.

  6. akr884

    It’s a decent point, but I think that they’ve already talked about merging Android and Chrome OS when mobile devices become powerful enough to run Chrome OS.

    And I saw, just a couple days ago, that Canonical was working on integrating the Android system, and thus all Android apps, into the main linux distributions (which would include Chrome OS, which Canonical is helping Google with).

    The advantage for Google is that people could still use the Google branding with Chrome OS on all their devices, get access to all the development done in the Android Marketplace, and Google could stop pushing forward their own trunk/operating system and just funnel people into linux proper. Google doesn’t necessarily need to continue developing an entire operating system, they can just focus on making the web experience better along with desktop/web-apps to push their core business across on a normal desktop/tablet/phone.

    • You can’t merge Android and Chrome OS any more than you can merge oil and water. One is designed to mimic the iPhone and accept third-party apps, the other is designed as purely web-only with no facility for any app installations. Aside from their kernels they have little in common. They’re mutually exclusive.

      Android plays by the rules set down for smartphones, but Google OS is designed for a new breed of device that doesn’t believe in local apps or storage. If you believe in that philosophy you can get such a device today: the JooJoo.

      • You can install the Chrome Browser inside of Android easily, since both are open source and the Chrome Browser already exists for ARM Processors, I am sure Google is working to include the Chrome Browser in a special laptop-friendly version of Android.

        Just as well as it would be easy to add a little icon in the task bar of Chrome OS to launch, install and manage Android applications. Android support in Chrome OS would barely add 40mb to the Chrome OS image file.

      • Canonical have a Dalvic run-time app. I saw it running Android apps inside Moblin last year. This is probably what they are working on. Intel and Meego might also be interested in it to give them a leg-up

  7. In Google’s eyes apps are a necessary evil. They get more consistent revenue if you’re on the web viewing ads. This is why Android is not even their non-smartphone strategy. Have you forgotten about Chrome OS?

    Chrome OS is what Google wants running on anything not a smartphone. It’s web-only, third-party apps need not apply. (Somehow this fact is not discussed as pundits are busy blasting Apple for web access and only allowing 180,000 apps in their “closed” system.)

    I think Google needs to quietly kill Chrome OS. They should act like they never even talked about it, instead spreading Android far and wide. Yes, they’ll have to give up on their fantasy strategy, but the idea of two mobile OS’s with nothing in common is madness anyway.

  8. Craig Carroll

    The article has hit the note. I had an archos 5, hacked it to run market place and through this I was able to run sync exchange and run other apps that would not normally be available. When it crashed and lost everything I promptly returned it. So whilst I agree with the article and believe that google should open up android and the marketplace to more non-confirming devices. Testing is required with certification or something similar as it could be a can of worms to manage and support – especially from a developers point of view.

  9. i would like to see google actively encourage manufactures to produce ‘WiFi only voip phones’ that act exactly like cell phone except work only in wifi and do not require subscription to cell carriers.

    i think many would be surprised at how many people would find they really do not need comprehensive cellular coverage as long as the money savings is significant enough.

    • While I agree with you to a point I think there are fewer people who would get rid of their cell phone than you think. In a city or heavily populated area it may be easy to find a good wifi connection, but on a highway or smaller town you would have to truly search to find a wifi connection, if it could be found at all.

  10. Really good article.
    Maybe Google’s answers are mushy because that’s how they feel about an App marketplace in the first place. Is an app store ‘open’ or ‘web’? Perhaps they should just let any company and/or group of Android using companies create their own app store and leave it at that.

  11. Kevin,
    While I do agree with your approach, I think that there are two areas where this becomes a wee bit hard to do:
    * Display sizes
    * Input options

    As non-phones will come in different sizes and shapes, it will be hard to know which applications can run on them and how well will they run on them.
    Input may vary. While on Android phones this is mostly done by touch or multitouch, other devices that use Android might not really be touch-capable at all, which will make it a bit hard.

    That said, I do believe as other commentators here that Google will broaden their reach with the market; and they will do that with tablets first in mind – mainly because this is what the Apple iPad is…


  12. Apple “iPhone” app developers see their apps not only being used on iPhones – but on the 10s of millions of iPod Touches that are out there as well. In fact, this is precisely why product managers decide to roll out a product on the Apple platform than on Android – there are many more reachable devices. Strangely “iPhone app development” should really be termed “iPod touch app development” and eventually “Apple app development”.

    What should exist is an Android-powered MP3 player that feels and behaves like the iPod touch (and while Google ponders what this should look like – they should sex it up just a bit). Doing so would break Android into a different product category that Apple has been enjoying a beachhead position for quite some time now.

    • They already exist – the Archos 5 that Charbax has been discussing is a fairly widely available one. Without access to the Android Market, though, these devices are a long step behind the iPod Touch in consumer appeal, and that can be laid directly at Google’s feet.

  13. HereAndNow

    The next priority for Android should definitely be tablets, since PC vendors will most certainly be eager to respond to Apple’s iPad. An Android tablet that lacks access to the thousands of apps in the Android Market will be at a significant disadvantage, when compared to an iPad that can run most/all of the existing iPhone apps.

    • The Archos 5 Internet Tablet with Android, released in September 2009, runs about 99% of the Android apps perfectly well. The only problem is that the Marketplace does not come pre-installed on the device for people to use instantly. People have to download and install an illegal “InstallMarketplace.apk” file from the web, transfered to the tablet over USB.

  14. More 95% of the apps people install on their Android devices do not require a camera or 3G to work.

    So for Google to provide a perfectly fine experience would just be a matter of filtering the apps according to which hardware requirements each app has, and Google can automatically filter all the apps because as you point out, they already know which apps require a camera, which app function on GPS and even which app is optimized for other screen resolutions.

    I really don’t think Google is trying to “control the Google Experience” in terms of making sure it works, I think Google wants to control which hardware has a full Google Experience in terms of making their partners happy.

    HTC, Motorola and Samsung each invested literally Billions of dollars in Android software development. Google feels it is pressured to provide them some kind of exclusivity for the Android Marketplace. In fact, you nearly won’t find any other manufacturers Android products with the marketplace yet.

    This will change though at some point very soon. As you know and has been shown at consumer electronics shows since June 2009, there are about 50 manufacturers who are coming with Android Tablets, Laptops, set-top-boxes, e-readers, even Washing Machines, Printers and Micro-ovens. So sure there is no way Google wants to prevent its OS platform from reaching competitors to the iPod Touch and the iPad. So you can be sure Android Froyo likely will come in a dozen different flavors and where the Google Marketplace will be available to a much broader set of manufacturers no matter the hardware configurations.

  15. On any of the Android tablets and laptops, you can “ilegally” unofficially hack and install the Google Marketplace. For example the Archos 5 Internet Tablet does have unofficial hacks to install the Google Marketplace, Gmail, Google Maps and everything on it.

    Sure it would be much better that Google provide official support for the Google Marketplace on all kinds of devices, including tablets, laptops, set-top-boxes and even e-ink e-readers.

    I spoke with Andy Rubin and Eric Schmidt briefly at Mobile World Congress, from what they told me, I am pretty sure Google is going to release more broader Marketplace support for tablets, laptops, set-top-boxes and e-readers. Each not only get customized marketplaces but also customized OS with special UI features adapted for each different types of devices, with support for all the screen sizes.

  16. Terrific spot on post Kevin !

    ….the sort of approach that needs to change if Google wants to move beyond smartphones…..One way to mitigate this issue is for Google to open up access to the Market but manage software installation at the application level.

    GOOG should hire you ;)