Trouble's brewing in Android land

Indications of desperation at Samsung, chaos at HTC, and reduced focus at Google suggest Android faces rough sailing

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Google's focus on Chrome OS over Android

In 2007, Android was a new mobile platform from an industry association called the Open Handset Alliance of which Google was the leading member. Many of today's Android makers, such as Motorola and HTC, were members. The goal was to have an industry-standard platform that members could modify as they saw fit. That's exactly what happened.

But over time, Android became a de facto Google product -- Google does the development, releasing the final code only after it has released its own products using it. Android is free and openly licensed, but it doesn't follow the community development principles of open source. There is a version released to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), but that iteration isn't quite the same, as Google's edition includes proprietary technology -- creating a tension that moved AOSP's longtime engineering leader, Jean-Baptiste Quéru, to quit in frustration earlier this year.

At the same time, Google seems less focused on Android. The last three versions (3.0 "Honeycomb," 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," and 4.x "Jelly Bean") have been increasingly incremental upgrades, and the fact that the forthcoming 4.4 "KitKat" is also a 4.x suggests it will be more of the same. Of course, you could easily argue that iOS 5, iOS 6, and iOS 7 were likewise incremental updates to iOS, though they were bigger increments than recent Android versions have been.

Since Google co-founder Larry Page became CEO in 2011, Google has sharpened its focus on its core business: strip-mining users' personal data to sell ads and insights to vendors. That's why you now see ads in Gmail on the Web (Yahoo does in its Webmail service as well), for example. Services like Google Now and Google Search track all sorts of details about users' digital and physical activities to offer personalized assistance and feed the desire for targeting information by vendors.

Google has made these services much more available for competing platforms such as iOS than in the past, which makes sense if the goal is to mine users' data. It's also made a huge push on Chrome OS, a browser-based operating system launched to fanfare in late 2010 that suffered poor adoption because it could do very little. But this year, Chrome OS has started to get some traction as an entry-level laptop, and the number of PC makers adopting it has grown. In addition, Google has worked on its Chrome browser, which is available for all leading PC and mobile operating systems, to essentially bring Chrome OS into those alien OSes.

Although Google continues to develop Android hardware of its own -- through partnerships under the Nexus brand and through its Motorola Mobility subsidiary -- they've not been the aspirational flagships that Google had originally promised. Instead, devices such as the Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Nexus 10, and Moto X have been middling products that seem more intended to encourage use of the pure Google Android UI, which of course emphasizes its data-mining services, than to push the Android platform itself forward. Remember, Samsung is the one that's been trying to innovate on Android, not Google.

Google's emphasis on Chrome and Google's services means there's less need for Android, which Google used initially as a vehicle to get its technology into lots of hands. Mission accomplished. Its technology is in pretty much every other platform now as well. Google has long believed in the notion of the Web as computer, and I believe Android was an interim step until Chrome OS was perfected. Chrome OS is not yet perfected, but it seems to be Google's key vehicle going forward.

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