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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That's why I believe Android's pace has slowed and AOSP is no longer that important to Google. None of this is an immediate threat to the Android platform, but at some point, Google is likely to stop investing in Android's development and leave a lot of companies in the lurch. It's possible that Samsung would take over Android, but it's focused on Tizen as an adjunct OS or, if needed, as a replacement for Android. It's hard to imagine others picking up Android successfully; the history of open source mobile OSes is one big string of failures: Moblin, Symbian, Maemo, MeeGo, WebOS, and likely Mozilla's Firefox OS. (Canonical's Ubuntu Touch may find a niche.)

Another scenario would have Android devolve into the Internet of things, as Chrome takes over the smartphone, tablet, and other personal computing realms. Android is already used by developers for embedded systems, Google uses it in its own Google Glass eyewear, and there are reports that the failed Google TV will be rebranded Android TV as part of a repositioning of Android into embedded systems. That might make sense for Google services like Glass and TV where Google can mine user behavior and data, but for other embedded uses, there's no clear economic value to Google.

No immediate danger for Android

HTC could disappear tomorrow, and the Android world would be unharmed. Samsung could lose market share by turning off buyers and Android would continue, with device makers such as LG filling in the gaps. Google and Motorola could continue to make middling Android products without harming Android as a whole. Executing on its Chrome strategy will take Google at least several more years, so Android remains necessary to its ambitions for what is a long time in the tech industry.

But the confluence of all these trends threatens Android over the longer term. As Android becomes less important to Google and if only Samsung is able to make money from Android, the market will shrink to Samsung, whose ability to compete on technology against Apple over the long term is an open question. Apple is all about making money, not grabbing unprofitable market share, so I don't see iOS pushing aside Android outside of a few markets like the United States and Japan, where market differences come into play. In the States, for example, carrier subsidies make iPhones just a little pricier than Android devices, so more people can afford Apple's superior platform.

In the rest of the world, price matters quite a bit, which is why in places like China and India very cheap Android devices sell very well -- never mind that they tend to run old versions of Android and would be considered barely functional in developed countries. Apple will target the rich buyers, leaving Samsung, LG, and so forth to try to find a niche between the rich and poor -- in countries with small middle classes.

Moreover, these supercheap Android devices don't do much for Google, as they can't run its data-mining services that well, outside of Gmail. Plus, China blocks a lot of Google's services, partly to control citizens' data access and partly, I believe, to keep its citizens' data for its homegrown companies' use. This reality means that huge Android sales in such countries isn't that economically important to today's Android leaders, and the future potential is one that requires calculated investments.

Nonetheless, Android fans in developed countries will enjoy Android for the foreseeable future. Just don't be surprised one day to discover that Android is less than it was.

This article, "Trouble's brewing in Android land," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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