Google helped make Samsung its biggest challenger -- then kept flailing
It's no accident that Samsung went all-out in pushing its Android innovations during the Motorola Mobility period; it realized it had to strengthen its version before Google realized the stupidity of the Motorola acquisition-and-evisceration strategy. Samsung talked about sharing a common UI among its Bada OS and its skin of the Android OS as a way of transitioning customers off Google if things got bad, and after killing Bada, it made the same noises about the open source Tizen OS. (Luckily for Google, Samsung's talk remains just that; in truth, it hasn't done anything serious with Bada or Tizen.) And those differences extended beyond the UI.
More critical, Samsung began developing its own service ecosystem -- music, games, and movies -- to compete with Google's panoply of Play services. That's the real game here. Google makes money by filtering all information possible about people, using its services as the filter points. (By contrast, Apple's business is to make money directly from its ecosystem, not to capture information it then resells.) That's why Google's services run on almost every OS, not just its own, and why Google is rethinking its AOSP program that puts Android but not Google's services on the majority of devices in emerging markets like Asia.
Amazon's Kindle Fire effort cut Google out of information-filtering (which is why Google changed the licensing rules afterward to discourage forks), and Samsung is working to do the same. The difference between Samsung and Amazon? Samsung is trying to play both sides -- milking Google as a partner as much as possible, while readying itself to take Google head-on. Amazon never wanted to partner; like Apple, it wanted to own its ecosystem from the get-go.
Google finally got a clue and made a lot of noise a year ago about the then-forthcoming Moto X, which would be the Android smartphone to school everyone else. The Moto X turned out to be a middling smartphone with a few cosmetic tricks (configurable cases!) and a couple of high-end features (such as a motion coprocessor), but Google provided no compelling apps to actually use that innovation. The Moto X flopped, and a few months later Apple debuted the iPhone 5S with its own motion coprocessor and a bunch of apps and peripheals that actually employed it. Android makers -- and more important, Google itself -- still haven't responded.
The reports on Android Silver suggest there'll be a focus on high-end hardware, with Google developing some of that technology and/or paying for its use. In other words, it's the same promise Google made for the Moto X, but with multiple hardware makers involved. Good luck with that. Why would LG, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, and so on tie their premium Android devices to a common set of capabilties? How could they possible stand out from each other? They won't. What they will do is take the money, then migrate that technology into their custom Android devices. Once again, Google is paying to be its own Trojan horse.
How Google could truly regain control of Android -- but will it dare?
If Google really wants to control Android in the way that Apple controls iOS and Microsoft controls Windows Phone, it needs to take Android back for real.
That's not hard. Android is only open-sourced after Google has developed it, so it's not true open source, merely openly licensed. All Google has to do is restrict Android licenses to those companies that make no modifications. (If it had kept Motorola, it could have made its own.) The devices based on Android 4.4 KitKat and earlier are beyond Google's control, but new versions of Android would not be. This, ironically, is essentially what Google did to Android by changing the rules on forks in Android's SDK, in response to Amazon's forking of Android 4.0.
Would Android continue to succeed if Google took it back for real? I believe so. I don't believe customers are loyal to the UI modifications and add-on technologies made by Samsung (in its eye tracker and pen), LG, and so on. At core, they're colored versions of the same aluminum. Pure Android is not better enough for people to leave companies whose products they have and like. Then again, pure Android is not worse enough to prevent Android users from switching to it if it's the only version available.
If Android 5 was available only in a pure form and Samsung finally makes good on its threat to switch to Tizen, I bet at least 80 percent of Samsung customers would stay in the Android environment, not switch to Tizen, iOS, or Windows Phone.
How about it, Google? Stop focusing on aluminum -- and set your sights higher than silver.
This article, "Google mines fool's gold with Android Silver," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.