Google: Unify Android, bring it to the desktop, and get serious about supporting protocols
When it comes to smartphones, Android dominates the market, outselling iPhones two to one. Android tablets don't fare nearly as well, and the best-selling Android tablet seems to be the Kindle Fire, which uses a forked version of Android. (I say "seems" because Amazon.com doesn't report sales figures, so no one really knows how many are sold. That's a common practice in the Android community, making all market share claims suspect.)
The truth is that Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" is the most prominent version, accounting for half of the units in use. However, it's not the Android that can compete with iOS. The Androids that can -- "Ice Cream Sandwich," which is at about 24 percent, and "Jelly Bean," which is at less than 2 percent -- trail iOS in adoption. Despite the braggadocio of Google chairman Eric Schmidt, that's not a sign of success but of a complacent market happy to use old technology -- the opposite of iOS.
The cellphone market has long been a mishmash of operating systems and custom versions, and the Android device makers have followed the same pattern with Android, thanks to the fact it can be customized as desired. That may get you market share, but not a platform. Also, market share is misleading: There were about 1 billion Java-powered cellphones in use a few years ago, but so what? No one but the carriers develops for them or seeks them out.
As good as "Jelly Bean" is, its advantages don't matter if only a sliver of users have it and only a slightly larger sliver can hope to. Apple typically ensures that a new iOS version can run on devices released in the previous two -- often three -- years. It makes the upgrades available to all, typically getting more than half of users to upgrade in the first weeks of release. Google needs to do the same.
The problem is that it doesn't believe in the notion of a common Android. Google develops Android internally, without community involvement (belying the myth that it is open source) and saves the newest innovations for itself, releasing them to device makers only after it's enjoyed an exclusive period of use. That's why a year after the release of "Ice Cream Sandwich," most users still don't have it -- and can't get it.
Google competes with Android device makers and plays favorites. On one hand it boasts about the advantages of an open ecosystem, but manipulates it to favor itself. The result is that the Android market is a mess of versions and inconsistent capabilities. Most users are using old, limited Android -- they might as well be using a Windows Phone or BlackBerry for the limited capabilities they have.
Google needs to figure out how to have a common platform that's easily updated while letting device makers retain the innovations and modifications they make -- it's no simple challenge but needs to occur for Google to keep Android fragmentation from harming its future or resort to a monolithic approach like Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 strategy that discourages device makers because all their products end up being essentially the same.
Google's Chrome OS confuses matters, providing a Google desktop experience wholly distinct from -- and incompatible with -- Android. I don't think a cloud-based OS is realistic for most people today, but whether or not it is, Google's desktop strategy should include Android for the traditional laptop and desktop forms of PC.
Google needs to resolve its Android strategy and either follow the Apple and Microsoft approach of high control or truly be an open but heterogeneous platform that doesn't intend to be seen as "a" platform. Today, it's not, though it at first appears to be, and users will notice as the interoperability issues and inconsistencies become more apparent.
Google also needs to put in printing, sharing, and streaming protocols à la AirPrint and AirPlay so that all Android devices can work with printers, media devices, and each other. The adoption of Miracast video streaming in the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 seems to be Google's answer to that issue, though Miracast-compatible TVs and media devices aren't yet available. Should Apple port AirPlay, AirPrint, and iTunes, it's game over for Google's aspirations to replicate Apple's entertainment business. True, Apple has no sharing protocol such as for business cards and screen status, but those in the Android world are device-specific and not usable in the world at large. Apple or Microsoft could fix that omission quickly, to Google's detriment.
Finally, Google needs to reconsider its strong aversion to making the Android platform work in business environments. In 2012, it disbanded the 3LM group it bought as part of Motorola Mobility that could have provided iOS-like management and security capabilities to the Android platform; renamed the Android Market to Google Play; and set the "Jelly Bean" OS to force the media and entertainment onto users at each startup or return to the home screen. The first decision tells businesses they can't depend on Android, and the other decisions tells individuals that Android is merely a device for play. If that's really Google's strategy, it will limit its role in the market unnecessarily -- and unwisely -- becoming essentially a type of Kindle.