Google’s Android operating system is without doubt a success story in the world of smartphones. From a market share of around 3% as early as 2009, the OS now runs on over 50% of new smartphones sold worldwide.
The media, television and film industry might have a love affair with Apple and its iOS platform but it’s Android that powers more new smartphones than any other. Depending on which analyst you pay attention to, the smartphone OS market currently consists of Android in number one position (with approximately 50% market share), Symbian in number two (17%), Apple’s iOS in number three (15%) and BlackBerry in number four (11%).
Surprisingly iOS’s market share has been flat for several quarters and combined with the knowledge that Symbian is on the way out and BlackBerry is struggling, this means that Android is steadily eating away at the other players and is set to keep growing. In May last year I blogged about the existence of eleven phone operating systems and argued the pros and cons of having such a large choice. As it turns out, the argument is almost a moot point due to the consolidation at the top end of the market and the dwindling market share of the rest.
So what does all this mean for Android in particular? How did it reach number one spot? Where is it positioned today? And what does the future hold for the evolution of Android? This guest post will explore these questions and aims to paint a picture of the future of Android.
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The reasons for dominance
Android has become successful due to a number of key factors. The first is the balance between simplicity and complexity. While Apple makes life as simple as possible for its users – to the point of dumbing the options available to the user – Android lets the user to drill down into menus, tweak options, customize their experience and ‘get under the hood’ more easily. While many users are happy to let the OS do most of their thinking, a growing number realize that this can be overly restrictive. Android provides the flexibility to personalize your phone to your needs rather than bowing to what the designers says the experience should be like. It’s a similar story with Apple’s walled garden approach to media, which is restrictive for the user. In contrast, Android is a lot more open about getting content on and off your device.
Another reason for Android’s success is the dizzying number of devices on which it runs. Apple has become incredibly successful, and profitable, by only launching one device per year and credit must be given where credit is due. But if you don’t like the physical properties and capabilities of the iPhone, there you’re out of luck. Android on the other hand runs on devices from countless hardware manufacturers including Samsung, HTC, Motorola, LG and Sony to name a few. If you like Android’s OS, but prefer options when choosing your hardware spec then you’re spoiled for choice.
A third reason for Android’s success is its integration with Google services. Many people might live in an Apple world, but many more people live in a Google world. We store our files on Google Docs. We email with Gmail. We stay informed with Google News. We organize with Google Calendar. We find our way with Google Maps and couch-travel with Google Streetview. Android allows us to seamlessly use these services on the go, wherever we are. We purchase an Android phone, enter our email and password and it syncs, connects and communicate effortlessly. Well, most of the time it does.
Since version 1.0 in 2008, Android has seen a steady stream of incremental updates, feature improvements and general enhancements to make use of changes in smartphone hardware. As we’ve moved through version 1.1, 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.2, 2.3 and now 4.0 (ignoring 3.0 Honeycomb for tablets), the OS has become more refined, bugs have been ironed out, the interface has become more intuitive, the layout easier to use and its features improved on. Furthermore, Android hasn’t started to look tired; in fact with Ice Cream Sandwich’s holographic theme, it looks positively futuristic.
Unless new hardware capabilities arrive, there is only so much that can be done to improve the overall experience. The OS has made the most out of cameras, touch screens, GPSs, accelerometers, onscreen keyboards, on-board speakers and the phones themselves. Now that Android has taken care of the core functionality of the modern smartphone, a new phase will emerge where Google will use Android as a platform to further push its services; hopefully resulting in a better experience for its users. The catch is that this may come at a cost.
The next phase
Many people wonder why a company, whose primary business is search, has become involved in a mobile phone operating system. What most people fail to realise is that Google isn’t in the business of search. They are in the business of selling advertising. They didn’t purchase YouTube to keep us entertained; they purchased the service in order to show ads to its enormous audience. Similarly, they didn’t create and give away Android for free as a charitable service to mankind. They did it because they understood that advertising money is shifting online and the online world is shifting into our pockets.
Google now knows the searches you make, the places you visit, the products you buy, the games you play and a whole lot more. If you’ve purchased an Android App, it even has your credit card number. What this means for Google is that they can sell more ads and more highly targeted ads to Android users. Fortunately for the user, they will still continue to enjoy rich features, useful in-built Apps and free Google services that will solve your problems and simplify your life.
In this new phase, Android users are likely to see a vast improvement in services such voice recognition, real time voice translation, augmented reality, phone based payments and cloud based media storage. All of this will make life easier and more fun for you and simultaneously provide Google with a constant source of anonymous user data to streamline its advertising model. It’s a double edged sword, but while Google continues to ‘not be evil’ and betray our trust, we’re likely to play along.
While all of this sounds good in theory, there is a counterbalance that may actually threaten this evolution, and that is the trend for customizations and ‘forks’ to the core Android OS.
Threats to Android
Currently some hardware makers, such as HTC and Samsung, take the core Android build and overlay the OS with user interfaces such as HTC’s Sense and Samsung’s TouchWiz. While these UIs do add value and allow hardware manufacturer to differentiate their phones, it can cause a nightmare when it’s time to upgrade your OS. Those owning a Samsung phone running Android 2.3 for example, will have to wait for Samsung to update TouchWiz before they can upgrade to Android 4.0. Admittedly, this isn’t a large threat to Android, or Google, but it does lead on to a similar trend that may threaten both.
The process of ‘forking’, where a company will take the Android kernel and significantly modify it, means that Android is going off on some unexpected tangents. Examples include China’s Baidu Yi operating system which is modified so much that it will struggle to run most Android Market Apps. Amazon’s Kindle Fire is another such example which runs a customized version of Android; but modified to push Amazon content to the device. While users can force these devices to run Android Market Apps, many of these Apps will not work on the forked versions of Android. It’s true that Android’s open source architecture does lend to the idea of forking, however it may come at the user’s expense and runs contrary to the evolution of Android as a whole.
It remains to be seen how far and in what direction this forking or customization leads, but it may begin to fragment the Android user base and might even begin to blur the boundaries between what is known as the core Android operating system.
The road ahead
Today we don’t know how far along the road we are in terms of OS evolution. It’s hard to even know how long the road is or where it leads, but as hardware becomes smaller, faster and more efficient, phone operating systems will become more complex, yet provide more value to the end user. Android is at the forefront of this evolution and with dominant market share, the world’s largest hardware makers behind it and the constant innovation of Google, Android looks set to surprise us for some time yet.
This was a guest post by Bryan Hunter who is the founder of Phone Tips and Tricks which provides the world’s largest database of tips and tricks for smartphones and tablets. Bryan is based in London, UK and regularly writes about the mobile phone industry.