Commentary: How Fragmentation, Crapware and Carriers Are Ruining Android
There's something rotten at the core of Android, Google's operating system for mobile devices, and sooner or later consumers -- and enterprises -- are going to notice that it is not as wonderful as it seems. The first thing that's rotten about Android is the whole premise that it frees hardware makers from the burden of making their own operating systems, allowing them to concentrate on what they do best: designing great handsets for their customers. On paper that sounds like a great idea: until Apple revolutionized the smartphone OS market with the launch of the first iPhone, mobile device manufacturers proved themselves to be pitiably awful at writing software for their handsets. So letting Google and the open source movement supply a killer OS that's available to all comers, while allowing the hardware makers to slug it out in the open market to produce the best handsets, sounds like a strategy that's bound to succeed. But this overlooks one key fact: the companies offering Android-powered phones are -- by and large -- a bunch of losers: Motorola. Sony. Ericsson (subsequently SonyEricsson), Samsung. They've all been in the cell phone racket for years, yet they all failed spectacularly to make an impact on it. It's the companies that don't offer Android - RIM (with its BlackBerrys), Apple and (internationally) Nokia that make the mobile devices that people want to buy. Of course you could argue that these losers made good hardware but were let down by their spectacularly bad mobile OSes. But that ignores the fact that almost all mobile OSes before the iPhone were bad, including RIM's and Nokia's.
Even if you have faith in manufacturers such as Samsung or HTC to create powerful, attractive and innovative handsets on which to run Android, there's something else rotten about the OS: in the Android world the carriers are the organ-grinders who call the tune, and the Android users are the monkeys who are forced to dance to it. Let me explain. Apple and RIM control both their hardware and the operating systems which run on them, and therefore they control the features that these handsets offer and the out-of-the-box experience. Since BlackBerry and iPhone handsets are in great demand, carriers are in no position to insist upon changes. Contrast this with what happens in the Android world. Carriers are in the mobile game to make money, and that means selling as many of their own services as they can. Android phones may offer Wi-Fi tethering, VoIP capabilities and free Google Maps Navigation, but only if the carriers decide that these services make them money. If not, then because Android is an open system, carriers are free to disable these features -- and there's nothing manufacturers can do about it. Of course things would be different if there was a "killer" Android mobile device. But because there are so many to choose from, and because new ones appear seemingly every week, no Android handset manufacturer is in any position to dictate terms to the carriers.
Android handset users ought to be able to benefit from the whole Android app ecosystem through Google's Android Market, but since no one controls Android, there's nothing to stop carriers from undermining the Android Market. They can do this by setting up their own app stores in direct competition for users' attention, and making these stores far more prominent on the handsets they offer than Google's Android Market. Then if a carrier sees an app -- a VoIP app for example -- that threatens its revenue streams, it can ban if from its own app store and count on the fact that many customers will never make their way to Android Market. So much for the Android app ecosystem! Android gets still more rotten when the phones that carriers offer are also supplied with screens filled with what is rather indelicately known as "crapware." These are annoying mobile apps and services that the carriers load on to the phones they offer in the hope of earning an extra buck or two off their customers. Anyone who's bought a new PC from a major vendor will know what I'm talking about, as will some Android users on the UK's Vodafone and T-Mobile networks. Unlucky T-Mobile users received a bunch of T-Mobile branded mobile apps with their September Froyo update, (in German, just to add insult to injury), while some Vodafone users got Vodafone branding and branded mobile apps that can't easily be removed with an update. An iPhone could never get sullied in this way, because Apple would simply never allow it. In the short term, Android may well continue to gain market share in the smartphone market -- after all, it does appear to offer users a low cost way into the world of smartphones and mobile apps. But that doesn't mean that in the longer term buyers won't realize that the Android ecosystem is fatally flawed, and that their choice of mobile device was a rotten one.