Open to abuse
The latest comScore figures for the US smartphone market show Android continuing to grab market share hand-over-fist, with BlackBerry losing share almost as quickly and only Apple holding its ground.
Prominent blogger Fred Wilson commented on the figures observing, as we have, that Android is fast becoming the Windows of mobile. Comparison rings true on many levels: largest user-base, most diverse hardware ecosystem and most flexible platform. The comparison with the closed, strictly controlled Apple ecosystem is too similar to be ignored.
There are some ways in which this analogy doesn't apply, of course. Android doesn't charge a license fee to OEMs, which is one of the things that have enabled its rapid ascent. But Apple's head-start in defining the modern smartphone platform means it has a quarter of the US market - much higher than the historical market share of Macs. Also, there are currently at least three other strong competitive mobile platforms in the form of BlackBerry, WP7 and HP/Palm.
But if Android wants to become the dominant mobile platform and remain so for the foreseeable future, it will have to address the responsibilities that come with this scale and reach. Chief among these is, inevitably, fragmentation.
In the religious wars between Windows and Apple fans, much of the dogma can be reduced to: choice versus polish. Apple fans will argue that things just work better on Macs and iPhones, while Windows/Android fans will say that's because it's a closed ecosystem, and they're willing to accept some of the inefficiencies that come with greater hardware choice.
I can appreciate both arguments, but my heart goes in the direction of messy diversity as I don't like the thought of having too many of my choices made for me by a third party. But I also know many lifelong Windows users who switched to Apple products because they wanted something that just works. Whether or not they found that to be the case I couldn't say.
Commenting on this debate, and citing a small survey of Android developers, Fortune observed that the vast majority of Android developers think fragmentation is a problem. This is a direct result of precisely the diversity that we all love, with both device and store fragmentation considered a problem.
The piece also refers to another prominent blogger - Marco Arment - who countered Fred Wilson's post with one of his own warning of some of the pitfalls of committing to developing on Android. Among his arguments is that the largest user-base for a platform doesn't necessarily mean the best opportunity for developers, if fragmentation and poor app visibility mean your products are only encountered by a small minority of those users.
And then there are Google's motivations behind Android. Apple makes iOS in order to sell Apple devices, RIM has the same philosophy with BlackBerry and, it seems, HP with Palm. Microsoft's business model for Windows and WP7 is selling licenses to OEMs.
But Google offers Android with no license fee to third parties, with the primary motivation of protecting its search business in the mobile space. There's a good analysis of this strategy here. So while Google obviously wants a good end-user experience on Android, it doesn't necessarily have as strong an interest as the others in keeping third party developers happy.
The core Google business model is to give stuff away for free and then monetise the resulting traffic. As long as people keep buying Android phones, Google's primary aim has been achieved. So it could be argued that it naturally favours free, ad-funded apps in the Android Marketplace, which will inevitably derive their revenue from the Google-owned AdMob service.
But Google is apparently well aware of the growing discontent among the Android ecosystem and seems to be striving to do something about it. Last week Bloomberg publish an analysis entitled ‘Do Not Anger the Alpha Android', in which it looked at Google's growing direct control over the platform.
While Android remains ‘open' there are distinct advantages to having Google on your side if you want to launch Android products. Possibly the biggest beneficiary of this was Google's first OEM partner - HTC - which made the Nexus One, and developed the very successful Desire range of smartphones off the back of it. More recent ‘chosen ones' have been Samsung with the Nexus S and Motorola with the Xoom tablet.
Even something as simple as not having the latest version of Android on your phone - something that can be heavily facilitated by Google - is a major disadvantage. Just ask Sony Ericsson. So if Google has decided it's time to bring order to Android, everyone else pretty much has to play ball.
While OEMs have to grapple with commoditisation and diminishing control over their own destinies, and developers struggle with fragmentation and commercial frustrations, end-users shouldn't celebrate Android getting too big a piece of the pie either, as competition will keep it honest and on its toes.
Thankfully it has a lot of competition, and all from very large, very profitable companies. While Android's ascendance has been very rapid, there's a growing feeling that if it doesn't do a better job of looking after its ecosystem, those gains could prove fragile.