The end of Android as we know it

Given three major threats brewing, it's hard to see how Google's Android sustains its momentum any longer

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Threat No. 1: No strong commitment to Android from Google

Google has spent billions of dollars on Android's development and marketing since it acquired the core technology in 2006. If its acquisition of Motorola Mobility goes through this spring as expected, that tally will rise to perhaps $20 billion. You'd think that Google sees Android as critical to its future, seeing as it's already footed such a big bill.

Not necessarily. Testimony in the current trial in which Oracle is suing Google for using the Java APIs without permission shows that Google indeed considers Android "important" but "not critical." Android-based search revenues -- how Google makes money from Android -- are also not huge, perhaps $500 million in 2011 (four times that of 2010 and eight times that of 2009). Google doesn't break out its mobile search revenues by platform, but most estimates are that it now makes a little more from Android search than it does from iOS search, for which Google has to pay Apple a commission. Add in search revenues from the other mobile platforms, and Android probably accounts for half of the expected $1.3 billion in mobile search revenues expected this year.

That's nothing to sneeze at, but Google's expected revenues for 2012 are more than $40 billion, of which Android search represents 1.5 percent. If all Android devices disappeared tomorrow and were replaced by competing platforms, that percentage would not change. However, the effective profit would decline by about 15 percent because Google would have to pay a commission to those other platform makers, which it does not pay itself for Android search revenues.

Still, you can see that Android per se is not necessary for Google's mobile search advertising growth.

That may explain why Google has been so slow and inconsistent in growing the Android operating system itself. The first version of Android on the market debuted in 2008 on the T-Mobile G1 to positive reviews. The first iPhone a year earlier got very mixed reviews, much like the original Mac in 1984: an engineering triumph in some respects, but with frustrating limits and a high price. Perhaps taking a page from Microsoft, Apple kept refining the iPhone, and by the time the iPhone 4 and iOS 4 debuted in summer 2010, it had become the most-loved mobile platform.

Meanwhile, Google was on Android 2.2 "Froyo," a decent mobile OS that still suffered by comparison. The iOS-Android gap had widened in iOS's favor since Android's debut -- then there was this device called the iPad that Google had no way to compete with. The Android OS was for smartphones only, and although Samsung, Dell, and others shipped 7-inch tablets using "Froyo," the lunacy of that plan became quite evident in their products, and they tanked. Meanwhile, Google waited until spring 2011 to ready Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" for tablets -- delivering a new version of Android incompatible with smartphones.

Then we all waited for Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" (ICS), the first Android version for both tablets and smartphones, which debuted in the Galaxy Nexus smartphone in late 2011. It turned out to be a cross-device version of "Honeycomb" with a handful of additional refinements. Most of us are still waiting; few devices have yet to be upgraded to ICS as yet, and just a smattering of new devices have shipped using it. Google has been strangely silent through it all, with major partners such as Motorola Mobility and Samsung left hanging in the breeze. Oh, and those customers who've been hearing about Android 4 for a year but still don't have it? They're prime candidates for a new OS when their contracts expire.

Android's journey has been amazingly lackadaisical and haphazard, especially when compared to Apple's steady, deliberate pace and clearly unified strategy for iOS across iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, and even Macs. Even Microsoft, which screwed around with Windows Mobile, then the Kin, followed by the first two versions of Windows Phone, now seems to be on a more deliberate path with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 "Apollo."

Apple has been serious all along, Microsoft finally seems serious -- but Google does not.

As for those billions of dollars of investments, which might indicate seriousness on Google's part, remember that Google has spent much of the last year ditching dozens of investments in technologies and services that it made in previous years. It's clear the company, in an effort to move beyond its core search advertising business, threw almost anything up against the wall to see what might stick. It had the money and the youthful energy to try anything, but half a decade of such an approach hasn't led to significant new businesses.

When co-founder Larry Page became CEO last year, he finally stopped that wasteful approach and began to unwind the clearer failures. Many more projects are in a maintenance mode or even limbo. Google's focus is now on Google+, the company's attempt to own a social platform where people engage with content in a way Google can actively mine -- not easy to do in mobile apps, where users are increasingly focused.

I won't be surprised if Android ends up in the maintenance mode list in the next year or two, a pseudo-open source project that Google maintains but doesn't invest in, providing a cheap OS for mass-market devices from which Google gets commission-free search revenues, even as the more lucrative search ads go to professional users' devices, such as the iPhone.

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