Trouble's brewing in Android land

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

The Android OS dominates the mobile landscape, outselling all rivals combined in most countries. The only serious challenger, Apple's iOS, earns much more money for Apple than Android earns for Google and all its hardware partners combined, but when it comes to market share, Android is king. So why does the Android ecosystem appear to be troubled?

HTC is in disarray, as its Android sales struggle in the face of the dominant Samsung, which is the only Android device maker to profit from Android. Google's Nexus devices have so-so sales, perhaps because they tend to be middle-of-the-road devices that don't inspire large populations the way Samsung and Apple do. Ditto for its Motorola Mobility unit. In fact, Google seems to have backed off on Android, focusing instead on Chrome OS and its array of data-mining services, which is where the company actually makes its money.

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Then there's Samsung, which sells by far the most Android devices and makes real money from them. Yet it apparently has stolen secret Apple information in defiance of the courts, cheats on industry benchmarks, and abuses the patent system to undermine Apple, a key customer if also a key competitor. It also stoops to announcing all-but-nonexistent products, such as the curved-glass Samsung Round last week, a pathetic attempt to pretend to be first. (HTC plans a similar product, so Samsung cobbled together a prototype that may never actually reach the market.) Such actions reek of desperation, not success.

What's going on in Android land is a series of sometimes unrelated events that intertwine in ways that aren't good for Android's future.

HTC's desperation to matter again

For example, HTC's troubles are not so much about Android but about not delivering compelling products regularly. HTC was the first company to offer a compelling Android device, the Droid Eris, in 2009, then all but disappeared in terms of innovation for the next three years. Its products were run-of-the-mill, inspiring little passion. And users have complained for years that HTC smartphones tend to break after a year of operation. Although this year's HTC One is a stylish smartphone that's a personal favorite of mine, it has done little to make HTC a leader in the Android market.

As a result, the company is in chaos, according to news reports. It's losing money, has laid off employees, and may need to get an infusion of cash from another company, ending its independence.

Samsung's misguided and perhaps unethical strategy

Samsung holds the leadership role in Android, thanks to strong efforts in 2011 and 2012 to make innovative, compelling products, such as the Galaxy Note series of smartphones, the Note series of tablets, and the very nice Galaxy S III. This year's Galaxy S 4 may have jumped the shark, despite its improved physical design, because of its mishmash of partially completed software, but Samsung still has plenty of momentum from those earlier products in buyers' minds.

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