Saturday, March 05, 2011

Apple's control advantage, and what Google needs to do with Android

Earlier this week, Apple announced the iPad 2, a solid, if incremental, next step for the iPad design. When the iPad 2 goes on sale on March 11th, nine days after it was announced, it will be launched with two important media creation apps, iMovie and GarageBand, and a new version of iOS, 4.3. For its part, iOS 4.3 will be deployed at no cost onto all iPads and most iPhones and iPod touches starting the same day. (Update, March 10, 2011: Apple made iOS 4.3 available for download starting yesterday.)

Apple controls its own hardware, software and distribution infrastructure. That level of control causes a lot of consternation on the part of consumers and developers who'd like the freedom to run what they want, when they want, on Apple's devices. However, Apple's control gives it a significant ongoing advantage over Android.

The existing and forthcoming collection of Android tablets demonstrates the disadvantages of Google's approach. Last fall, Samsung introduced its Galaxy Tab tablet, which launched with Android 2.2. It was officially endorsed by Google, meaning that it got access to the Android Market and could run Google's own Android apps, although Google's own executives cautioned that Android 2.2 was designed for smartphones, not tablets. Galaxy Tab purchasers reported that the product functioned more like a big smartphone than a tablet, and as reported by a number of sources, sales have been disappointing.

Google's hardware and mobile carrier partners are under no obligation to upgrade smartphones and tablets in the field to the most recent version of Android. They're not even obligated to release new devices with the latest version of Android. Google itself released Google TV with an earlier version of Android. Google keeps track of the versions of Android in use by monitoring Android Market app downloads, and according to its own statistics, more than 10% of Android devices actively in use are still using Android 1.5 or 1.6. (Google's statistics don't track the "unauthorized" Android devices that don't have access to the Android Market.)

Update, March 6, 2011: Here's an excellent example of Google's dilemma: According to Engadget, Olivetti in Italy just announced its OliPad Android tablet. It has all the hardware features it needs to support Android 3.0: Tegra 2 processor, 10" 1024 x 600 display, WiFi and 3G, yet it's being released with Android 2.2 rather than Android 3 as its operating system.

Many developers have complained about the variety of Android versions in use, but Google's management says that it's a "non-issue". Nevertheless, buyers of Android devices have no guarantee that their smartphone or tablet will ever be upgraded to a newer version of Android. Apple developers can largely target the newest version of iOS, with assurance that it will quickly spread to most iOS devices, but Android developers have no such assurances.

That brings us to the current wave of tablets running on Android 3.0, also known as Honeycomb. First out was Motorola's Xoom, which launched with less than 20 tablet-aware apps, a price very near Apple's top-of-the-line iPad, and future compatibility with LTE that will require the tablets to be sent back to Motorola for free upgrades. Early reports indicate that the Xoom is selling much more slowly than Motorola or Verizon, its sole carrier partner in the U.S., expected. Next up will most likely be LG's G-Slate, with similar specifications and a carrier partnership with T-Mobile, followed by Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1.

Google could have taken control of the process and required hardware vendors and mobile operators to agree to upgrade their devices to the latest version of Android within a reasonable period of time after they're released, but it chose not to do so. It could also have compelled vendors to hold back their tablets until a critical mass of tablet-aware apps was available, but again, it chose not to do so. If you buy a Motorola Xoom today or a G-Slate or Galaxy Tab 10.1 tomorrow, do you have any assurance that it will run Android 3.1, or 3.5, or 4.0, or that the manufacturer or carrier will allow you to upgrade? The answer is no.

Google could have orchestrated a huge day-long event in April or May to introduce the Xoom, G-Slate and Galaxy Tab 10.1 together, each with its carriers, along with perhaps 1,000 tablet-aware apps. Each vendor could separately announce their products, along with ship dates, prices and carrier partnerships, at the event. A separate Developer Showcase at the event could have shown off the best of the new apps. But, none of that is going to happen. All three tablets, along with their apps, will trickle out over the next few months.

Google needs to start exercising more control over its hardware partners, carrier partners, and the Android Market (see this week's malware breakout). Android is now important enough to its partners that Google has the power to coordinate product launches and updates, if it chooses to do so. Google can still have open source and an open development process, but it needs to act a bit more like Microsoft used to when it coordinated hardware partner launches with new versions of Windows.

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