Ever since I played with Android a few years ago, I’ve wondered who Google envisions is Android’s customer. As Android adoption has expanded, the question has become even more puzzling. The tricky part is that Google has many “customers” of Android – and that worries me.
Google has been courting device manufacturers for years, extolling the virtues of an advanced smartphone OS that is free, open – and not iPhone. Part of the appeal to many manufacturers is that they can customize it in any way they see fit. The problem with this approach is that these manufacturers have already proven that they are terrible at making software, ergo the need for Google to do it for them in the first place.
Device manufacturers are weak at software. Not only do they make strange customizations, their choice of hardware and drivers lead to very buggy devices. Then, because they customized Android and are bad at making software in the first place, when Google releases a new version of Android, they can take months to get their act together and make sure their device will work with the new build. Outdated and modified software is the first chink in the Android armor.
Google also must work with carriers, which – notorious for draconian control of their networks and the devices they carry – were slow to join team Android. They saw the crippling effect iPhone had on AT&T’s network and worried about the immense strain these data-hungry customers would place on their networks. But they finally acquiesced; they simply could not keep ceding the market to Apple. Carriers being carriers, however, they want to leave their mark on everything they sell. They load up Android phones with their own media apps, their partners’ apps, and other unnecessary additions that are generally poorly designed and useless.
Carriers also have a say in controlling the speed at which OS updates will be pushed, since all OS updates are OTA (over the air). Google needs carriers to support Android, so the company has been soft with them, allowing them to do things at their own pace. Slow updates are bad for consumers. Chink two.
Google must also convince developers to build apps. Apple has a massive head start, and as a developer, it is very hard to spend cycles developing for a platform that is still quite buggy, fragmented across devices, and has fewer engaged users than iOS. Some developers are excited by the unfettered access they have to the device; however, most of these apps are more science experiment than useful consumer app. There is little comparison between some of the most popular apps on both the iPhone and Android. The iPhone apps are smoother, more polished, and less buggy – this is what consumers care about, not access to tweak the core OS. Google needs to work hard to build better tools for developers, document the OS better, and provide stronger examples of how to develop world-class Android apps. If you were to ask a developer thinking of building a mobile app which platform they were going to support first, my guess is that Android would not be their first pick. Chink three.
The most important customer is the end user, which is where I believe Google is most confused. When the G-1 came out, it was positioned as an alternative to iPhone. An alternative. That’s not good enough. It was not leaps and bounds better, just similar in some areas, better in few, and worse in most. I say “worse in most” with the filter of average internet users as the customer – not tech geeks, Valley denizens, or business users, but average internet consumers. People who buy things on Amazon every once in a while, who watch YouTube when they get links from friends and co-workers, who have most likely owned an iPod, but not a Mac. I think Google wants these people to buy Android phones, but they have made so many design decisions that preference the hardcore geek over the average user. Installing apps is a scary process, with alert screens practically suggesting you don’t install the app, menus within menus, notifications overflowing, and an on-boarding process that is laden with text explanation (a sign of un-intuitive design). Android has gotten a bit better since launch, but it still feels like a mini-computer, rather than a sleek intuitive device. I have used the HTC Hero, the Droids, and the Nexus devices, and none of them really make me want to use them more. Chink four.
I realize that this all sounds like terrible news for Google, and that I am proclaiming the death of Android. That is not my intention. My concern for Android is that it is confused; it has to serve multiple masters and won’t be able to serve them all while still creating an OS and end user experience people love. Most consumers are not really looking for multi-tasking, root access to their device, or the ability to hack their phone.
Apple still leads because they have created an experience with the iPhone that people love and seek out. Android needs to focus on building out the user experience so that average users can pick up the phone and won’t want to put it down. It will require Google being tougher with device manufacturers and carriers and more investment in the UI of Android to ensure a great experience for consumers. I am waiting for that Android. I hope it comes soon.