How Google’s Android Can Lose From Winning

Google I O 2010 Gundotra Android

As Android evolves into a dominant mobile platform, it’s forcing Google (NSDQ: GOOG) to confront some hard truths about how it works with partners, the perils of moral grandstanding and what exactly it means to be open.

For years Google has been pitching Android as the yin to Apple’s iOS yang, in that Android is “open” software free from the types of “closed” restrictions that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) places on iOS development. In the press release announcing Android, Google and the members of the Open Handset Alliance wrote “Handset manufacturers and wireless operators will be free to customize Android in order to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost.” And in a much-publicized quote at the Google I/O conference in 2010, Google’s Vic Gundotra recalled a conversation with Android head Andy Rubin in which Rubin said Android was created because “if Google did not act, we faced a Draconian future. A future where one man, one company, one device, and one carrier would be our only choice.” Referring, of course, to Steve Jobs, Apple and the iPhone.

There’s no doubt the strategy is working: Android now runs on 33 percent of smartphones in the U.S., according to Comscore, up 7 percent from last November and well ahead of Research in Motion’s declining market share and Apple’s steady iOS share. But that success has come with growing pains, and recent moves by Google to address some of those pains shows just how counterproductive it can be to declare one’s company the moral authority among competing businesses.

Picking up the pieces: Easily the biggest complaint about Android in its first years on the planet has been fragmentation. Google releases new Android versions at dizzying speeds, and not all of its handset partners are able or willing to move at the same speed. That results in a large number of different Android versions out in the wild at any given time, which can frustrate developers whose applications won’t work perfectly on all of those versions, especially when coupled with the differences in hardware produced by various Android partners.

Google is now addressing some of those concerns. A Bloomberg Business Week article this week revealed that Google is “tightening” policies regarding “non-fragmentation clauses” in Android licenses, demanding the right to review custom code changes to Android in hopes of preventing issues and giving those willing to follow its guidelines early access to new versions of the software.

The reaction was swift: Partners had embraced Android because it promised to allow them to create differentiated handsets instead of repeating the history of the PC market, in which PC makers were almost completely beholden to Intel (NSDQ: INTC) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) for innovation and wound up competing on price and logistics: hardly a sexy business model. And now that Google was restricting their ability to carve their own path, they lashed out, grumbling to the media about the situation and even going so far as to complain to the Justice Department, according to Bloomberg Business Week’s article.

In some ways, it’s a bit laughable. Google attempts to solve one of the biggest problems with Android by taking a little responsibility for the excesses of its partners, and a bunch of companies that are not exactly known for software–like LG (SEO: 066570), Toshiba, and Samsung–complain about their inability to add what many believe is the second-biggest problem with Android: the crapware-style applications and user interfaces that some companies impose on otherwise excellent Android handsets in the name of differentiation.

And the reaction from Apple supporters was predictable. John Gruber, probably the most consistently eloquent of the bunch, went off the deep end when he wrote “Andy Rubin, Vic Gundotra, Eric Schmidt: shameless, lying hypocrites, all of them.” But the sentiment is understandable. Google has been looking down its nose at Apple for quite some time with its “open” Android strategy, and any sign that Google was closing the window, even just a little, was ripe for criticism.

No good deed: The most amazing thing, however, is that Google is doing the right thing. This is exactly what Google should be doing to make Android a better product for users and application developers, ensuring that applications will run better across Android phones and that consumers are protected from the worst offenders of user-interface bloat.

Google faced a dilemma when the Android program began: too much control over the software would alienate the partners it needed to make hardware and promote Android phones, and too little control and Android would turn into 15 different operating systems. It opted to court partners, and the result is an astounding growth story that in giving the world two strong, innovative mobile platforms is making the mobile market a better place to do business. Now that Android is established, it seems a bit self-serving to criticize Google for trying to make improvements that both Android supporters and detractors would agree are needed.

The problem is that Google has always seen itself as a moral force in the world, and has tried very hard to present that image to the public. In deciding to sell Android by so emphatically portraying itself as the righteous alternative to Apple’s dark desire for control and profits (Gundotra even used a slide referencing Orwell’s 1984 when he delivered the above quote), it created an impossible situation in which anything perceived as a blight on its record results in more of a backlash. Just look at the long line of moralizing politicians who have been caught cheating on their wives; those who don’t practice what they preach often fall harder.

Google has a complicated relationship with the word “open,” to be sure, often criticized for only being truly open when it suits its purposes. In this case, Android is still an extremely open alternative for anyone considering building a mobile phone even with the crackdown on code reviews, and might actually wind up a better product as a result of Google’s decision to assert more control.

But when you sell a product on the purity of your ideology, anything seen as a compromise is a problem. Potential Android partners are going to look at Google a little differently from now on.

See where Google ranks on our latest list, The paidContent 50: The Most Successful Digital Media Companies In The U.S.

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