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

Android devices account for more than half of the smartphones sold or at least shipped; sales figures are, to say the least, suspect. Yet a growing number of signs indicates that Android has peaked as a platform and will do a slow fade into either irrelevance or the kind of anonymity the operating systems powering "regular" cellphones have long known.

There's no single reason why Android seems to be on the cusp of a decline -- and that's perhaps the most worrisome sign of all. Precisely because there are multiple, independent factors rather than a single Achilles' heel, Google can't address the issue with a single silver bullet. I won't be surprised if in 2015, Android has faded to a third or less of the smartphone market. I'm all but certain that Android will be nearly nonexistent in the tablet market, though its proprietary Kindle Fire offshoot will remain a distance No. 2. Already, it's a footnote and Windows 8 tablets aren't even real yet.

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There are many factors contributing to Android's smartphone success, but few relate directly to Android itself. Android has succeeded mainly because it gave Asian smartphone makers a way into the cellphone space just when the market was going through a seismic shift. Apple's iPhone had redefined a cellphone into a smartphone, and Research in Motion's stubborn clinging to an irrelevant BlackBerry past knocked out the one data-savvy traditional vendor that might have joined the smartphone revolution and competed with Apple. Also stubbornly clinging to an irrelevant past, Nokia made lots of noise for a parade of mobile OSes but ultimately didn't really try to deliver, knocking out the world's largest cellphone brand from the new race.

In that context, Samsung and HTC seized the opportunity to redefine themselves from being mere "OEMs" -- original equipment makers of interchangeable, generic cellphones -- to actual mobile brands. HTC came out strong, but has since faded. Samsung took a longer view, building up its Android capabilities and becoming Google's unofficially preferred hardware partner, as well as filling in some business security needs keeping Android as a phone platform for kids, retirees, and adults who don't have "knowledge worker" jobs. Motorola Mobility, spun out of the faded American icon Motorola, saw a similar opportunity and has delivered a series of business-oriented Android devices. Other Asian manufacturers -- Acer and Asus, most notably -- also joined in, but with less real commitment.

A big gap was emerging just as Google released its first version of Android in late 2008 as a way to enter the mobile search advertising market, and Samsung, HTC, and Motorola Mobility jumped in to use it. (Google bought Android in 2005, two years before Apple unveiled the first iPhone.) It was sort of like Apple's iPhone; even better, it was free to license. HTC and Samsung also quickly discovered they could use Android on many of their existing Windows Mobile devices, with just slight modifications, making it an easy bet. If they didn't sell the Android versions, they could reflash them as Windows Mobile devices for sale to government agencies. Today, Samsung is the top seller of smartphones and may soon edge out Nokia as the top seller of all cellphones. In comparison, HTC hasn't done nearly as well, and Motorola is stuck in a prolonged acquisition by Google.

With that history established, let me explain the three groups of reasons that cloud Android's future.

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