Android Failure

If you had only recently crept out from under a rock and become interested in mobile phones, you might take a glance at the current landscape and assume that things have always been very much the same: That Android has been sitting pretty as the dominant OS, while iOS has maintained a very respectable second place. Obviously, the truth couldn't be further from that impression. In an industry only recently defined, iOS and Android have been market-munching with a voracious appetite. Android has embraced this race and kicked it into an even higher gear, setting a blistering pace that has left Cupertino choking on clouds of dust. However, even more shocking than the meteoric growth of the platform is the potential that still remains untapped.

Android, commanding nearly 50 percent of smartphone OSs, reigns in marketshare, but Apple, and therefore iOS, leads in two categories that are even more important in the long term: Mindshare and to a lesser extent, heartshare. Yes, I realize I just wrote heartshare. I chuckled the first time I said it to myself, too. I'm only acknowledging it now so that you'll stop thinking about it long enough for us to have a serious conversation. More on this concept of heartshare later.

Cupertino sparked the smartphone revolution, and as the first sojourner to plant its boots in such virgin, fertile soil, they have left the largest footprint. For well over a year they shaped the market, impressing upon us the idea of how a real smartphone should look, behave and feel. Even though the iPhone was indeed a revolutionary product and a spectacle to behold, Apple still had plenty of battles to fight to gain marketshare: being limited to one Stateside carrier, charging into the inroads made by Nokia in Europe and convincing businessmen that they didn't need their Blackberries. Things were looking good, Apple was looking like the chosen son, primed to claim the promised throne. Then came the plague.

I'm sure that you're thinking it's unfair for me to compare Android to a crippling disease that wiped out half of Europe, but I think it's an apt comparison for some very distinct reasons. The Plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, is caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis; a fast-growing bug that is capable of doubling in 1.25 hours. That's really fast. If I had the reproductive characteristics of a Y. Pestis cell, I could repopulate a desolate Earth in less than 41 hours. Left alone a mere 34 hours, I would number more than 150,000,000. That's a lot. It's also the number of activated Android handsets. It also feels like less than a day and a half ago that the first Android phones were released. It's amazing, and it's an accomplishment due to Google's strategy of platform stratification and diversification. You can find an Android handset in every price range and from every major manufacturer. Google blitzed the market, offered OEMs the opportunity to customize their "open" software, and the market responded by crowning Google King of Marketshare. However, what is lost in the numbers is what Google failed to do.

It might be worth emphasizing that the vast majority of those buying smartphones are not techies. Also, it might be worth emphasizing that many of them are techies. That being said, Android has two distinct disadvantages that upset both groups. The average consumer does not understand the complexities of a mobile operating system, nor do they want to. To them, a very understandable and enjoyable end-user experience is all that matters. They don't see the line between hardware and software. They see a phone; they see an experience. This is where Mountain View has failed to win mindshare. They have let the hardware manufacturers and carriers market their OS, and they have done an abysmal job of it. Look at any advertisement for an Android phone. Perhaps you'll see an android floating gracefully amid giant, whitewashed words in the middle of a salt plain, or perhaps you'll see a cellphone violently transform before your eyes before a killer robot screams, "DROID!". Compare these ads to the Apple advertising campaigns we've witnessed over the years. We remember the catchy tunes, the products highlighted against a white background, and we certainly all know that "there's an App for that". Love them or hate them, you have to admit that Apple's marketing team plays second to no none. We want to be entertained; we want the product to be the star. We don't want to be attacked by a killer robot.

That being said, the Verizon "Droid" marketing campaign was fairly successful. They targeted the advantages Android held over iOS with sharply worded phrases such as "iDon't multitask". This aggressive campaign was effective, but it has also long since run its course. Verizon, now an iPhone carrier, wisely shies away from insulting a featured product line. Because of the Verizon campaign, many if not most consumers refer to Android phones as "Droids". And why wouldn't they? If there has been any effort to market the platform, it has fallen flat. Who can blame the carrier or the manufacturers? If the differentiating factor in Android phones is the hardware, why would they waste valuable commercial time touting the OS? Without establishing the OS as the Soul of Android devices and of the Android experience, Google has failed to establish mindshare among the everyman, relying instead on market saturation as the sole solution for dominance.

Heartshare may sound like a new term, but the concept is indeed quite well established. When I speak of heartshare, I speak of the die-hard users who wouldn't switch OSs to save their kitten's life. The hardcore users who spend hours laying awake at night dreaming about the newest version's impending release. Yes, I'm speaking about you, fanboys. Annoying and one-dimensional, but at the end of the day, they are necessary. Yes, necessary. They serve a variety of purposes. Their community functions as a thermometer to measure the health of a platform, but infinitely more important is the role they serve as ambassador. They're the unpaid interns, taking the fight to the interwebs, extolling the virtues of an OS while they obliterate the defenses of rival platforms with a single, well-placed zing. As polarizing as they are, companies are glad to have them because they ultimately make a difference to the bottom line. While mindshare is important, a consumer is much more likely to make a purchase based on a recommendation from a friend than on a general knowledge of another product's existence, and fanboys LOVE to give recommendations.

I believe the most important aspect in regard to cultivating heartshare isn't outrageous design or crazy functionality, it's having a vision and sticking to it. Apple has mastered this aspect, and whether you love or hate their walled-garden approach, it is a refined experience that has been meticulously planned and executed. It's also the result of Apple having sole control over the OS.

The naysayers of Android have a favorite word, and that word is "fragmentation". Letting a manufacturer skin your OS for differentiation may be a noble idea, but in practice it is disastrous. That's not to say that every skin is evil, or that they do not have anything to offer. The problem is that they dilute or muddy the Android experience as a whole. In fact, it could be said that Android has no set identity at all, that its disembodied self is floating in four different dimensions in six different versions across a sea of OEMS and carriers. I do think that Google has a distinct idea of what Android should be, and we have been given the chance to see that on Nexus devices. But if the vast majority are not playing with the same version, is the experience still dictated by Google? This is where heartshare is damaged. A tech junkie may love the design of the Atrix and the more flexible OS, but hate the ugliness of MOTOBLUR. If he were to find an HTC phone to his liking, he's be similarly disappointed with the battery-sucking hyperbole lagfest that is the Sense UI. While the core functionality of the devices remain the same, the skin, the presentation, changes with every phone. It's a mix and match smorgasbord that leaves the user wondering what exactly the Android experience should or could be.

How can this problem be solved? How can Google find and capitalize on the hearts and minds of users everywhere? With the acquisition of Motorola Mobility, Google has the opportunity to create the definitive Android experience. In order to establish that experience, they will have to make some unpopular changes. Perhaps Google will churn out Motorola devices without any horrid MOTOBLEH slapped on them, and instead mandate pure, unadulterated, vanilla copies of Android. They could strong-arm the other OEMs into adopting the same stance by only updating phones that are not skinned. Whatever they do, they need to tighten the reigns and offer a more coherent experience that competes with what Apple has been offering for years.

It's funny to say that Google must become more like Apple in order to reach its potential. It's even funnier to think that Apple will soon apply the same hardware strategy that has made Android ubiquitous. Just as Android has been hindered by its dedication to open source, Apple has also been hindered by its design philosophy. It cannot focus on the high end alone, it must also market to the less affluent. That road to dominance lies in producing handsets that span the same price range as Android's offerings.

Ultimately, both companies will only reach their potential once they adopt their rival's strategy.

Especially Google.