OPINION: Why is nobody using Android?

Mobile phones

I’m going to do you a favour before I make you read everything I’ve got to say. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know why just about every phone manufacturer save Apple and Nokia has given Google’s mobile OS the cold battery cover ever since the G1 came out in October last year. I don’t know.

You don’t hear any Android user talking about how rubbish the platform is. You don’t hear any developers saying it isn’t any good either, and in techland, that’s a sign that a product is more or less perfect. So, what’s the problem?

I suppose we should start with the obvious ones – Apple and Nokia. Now, that may seem pointless but go with me here. Apple doesn’t use Android because they have the excellent iPhone OS and, besides, they’re Apple and it’s somewhere in the deal in fairly large print that they won’t do anything the same way as anyone else. Ok. Fine. That’s them out of the equation.

Nokia is also never going to use Android. Not only do they also have a brilliant, flexible platform in the shape of Symbian but rather like Victor Kiam, they liked it so much they bought the company. They have a vested interest in the success of Symbian and they’re not going to start giving Android a punt.

Now, those two given, that’s a huge portion of the smartphone market and, dare I say it, the two most influential and innovative handset manufacturers apart from Sony Ericsson. Samsung and LG come in the next tier down for my money and, although I do have a bit of a soft spot for the latter, I’d say that both companies spend more time making catch up handsets than coming up with anything genuinely original.

As a result, I think they’re afraid. They’re afraid because they’ve spent years eating the dust of the big boys of the mobile world and only made up the ground a short while back by supplying consumers with luxury features that the likes of Nokia were neglecting. Whether or not these were well integrated didn’t matter. The public had money and they wanted toys.

LG and Samsung are multinational, mulit-tech companies with as big a pile of cash as anyone has these days but that money is not going to buy them love if they churn out handsets that nobody wants. The fact is that they’re just not sure that Android is a safe bet and, in the mobile world, LG and Samsung are not used to having to make these decisions. They’re not used to leading the way.

The T-Mobile G1s have not exactly gone like hotcakes. They haven’t flopped but there’s been no wave of excitement there either. The problem is that this hasn’t really been the fault of Android but more that the HTC Dream isn’t a particularly exciting machine.

I think practical is the right, if slightly unfair, way to describe it. It’s a better phone than people give credit but the problem is that it was pushed out as an alternative to the iPhone and no one can compete with Apple for design. The iPhone is beautiful. The G1 has a chin, and that’s where most of the public’s criticism of Android is misdirected – at the handset and not the OS, and Samsung, LG and others have spent far too long chasing the pack to go and make a mistake on being different or risking the investment in one of their top handsets on longer shot than they have to – at least not until Android has proved itself. So they wait, and we wait too.

Google isn’t going to get a helping hand from any of the emerging smartphone companies out there either. I was at an Acer mobile event the other day. They’ll be launching over 10 smartphones by the end of the year, all of them on Windows Mobile.

Why? Because they want their computers to synch up with these handsets as easily as possible and all their computers run on Windows.

Part of me wondered this morning whether Microsoft was offering subsidies to handset manufacturers if they built their phones around Windows Mobile. They may have invested a lot of money in Windows Mobile, particularly with 6.5 coming out later this year, but the picture is bigger than that. This isn’t Windows Mobile vs Android. This is Microsoft vs Google; the old heavyweight vs the bright young thing.

Google is taking a dangerously large amount of market share away from Ballmer, Gates & Sons from Gmail, to Office and perhaps soon an Android desktop OS too. The last thing Microsoft wants is to be beaten in the mobile market too and, although for most of us it feels like a forgone conlcusion, perhaps they can keep Android down long enough, and buy themselves enough time to get their mobile platform right.

As it goes, I don’t think Microsoft is offering any money to anyone, but that doesn’t mean they’re not making Windows Moblie a little cheaper to license than they should or not offering help in other areas such as resources and support.

Interestingly enough, a report this morning on ITPro Portal suggested that Google themselves might be offering an incentive to the mobile makers to give Android a chance and will actually pay money for companies to take it on knowing that it will lead to increased revenue in the long rum. This could be the ticket given the current economic situation but the same financial climate won’t excatly make the manufacturers too keen to take any chances either.

Fortunately, HTC is sticking with Google. Right now, it’s the best thing about them. We know that the Magic is lined up as the G2. We also know that Kogan has a handset near production with an Android OS. The fact that it was delayed is probably a positive thing in the long run if it means it’ll offer a better customer experience, and for all my suspicions of Samsung, they have at least themselves made murmurings about an Android phone.

But it’ll be the release of a good Sony Ericsson, sporting Google’s baby that should be the key to success. SE has a good and loyal fanbase and if they can come up with something typically high spec, attractive and funtional in that Sony Ericsson way that I don’t quite understand then that should be the shove that the market needs to lend confidence in what is clearly a good OS with a lot of potential.Until then, Google has to sit tight with what HTC can offer and the huge splash that the GiiNii MovIt made at CES 2009.

Android isn’t going to be the quick success that everyone thought it would be. The times, the manufacturers and the hardware has so far conspired against it, even if none of it malicious, but Android is a snowball. Mark my words. It may be small right now but it’s coming. It’s coming because it works and with 100% market growth in smartphones in the last year, we could still see the avalanche that the world was expecting.

Daniel Sung
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