Google recently announced a staggering statistic in a press release: 160,000 Android phones are being activated each day. That’s two phones being activated every second. Android phone models are now available in the United States on all the major carrier networks (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile). OEMs such as Motorola are betting the house on the success of Android. HTC has made a name for themselves with their innovation on this open platform. Carriers are also rapidly entering the innovation game and jostling for advantage. Previously, if a consumer wanted a smartphone, their only option was to buy an iPhone and switch to AT&T. Given Android's reputation as a highly capable smartphone, and its wide availability on all major carriers, consumers are rapidly adopting Android. Hence the staggering statistic of two devices a second.
So how can this animal called Android both be unleashed and tamed at the same time? This question is especially pertinent to carriers and OEMs who are looking to innovate and stand out on this platform, yet avail themselves of the ecosystem provided by both Google via updates as well as the growing number of third party applications available for Android.
How open is Android really?
What does it really mean when one says that Android is an "open" platform? From whose perspective is it open? Can disruptive innovation on top of this open platform really be achieved, and at what cost? In a recent article written by Andreas Constantinou, the author proposes that even though Android is open source, the openness of the software is really meant for third party application developers and end users to harness rather than for carriers and manufacturers to benefit from. Google's breathtaking rate of confectionary-named releases of Android (Donut, Cupcake, Eclair, Froyo) with new versions of the SDK (Software Development Kit) available to third party developers makes it very difficult for manufacturers and carriers to keep up. Consumers want the latest version of the software and its capabilities. Developers want to build upon the new capabilities as well. So for a manufacturer or carrier who has innovated on top of the base platform in a fundamental way, the upgrade path is either fraught with difficulty and delays, or in some cases it is downright impossible.
Openness versus Innovation?
Does openness foster innovation or in the case of Android does it actually hinder it? It depends upon your perspective.
Third party applications are the secret sauce of converting the device for the consumer from a phone to a personalized gateway to the world around them. Applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Shazam give the user a feeling of being constantly connected and in the loop in a context-sensitive manner. Neither Google, nor any manufacturer or carrier can anticipate all of the needs and wants of an individual consumer. However, targeted applications can deliver the goods. With a smart design, they can be woven into this ecosystem that transforms the device from being a phone into really being "smart."
One such transformative feature is called “Account Management,” which was introduced in Android 2.0. The function allows for a third party application to pull contacts and information from an external location (Facebook, for example) and add them to the contacts database. The underlying platform automatically merges the contacts pulled from various locations into a single contact using algorithms that identify matches using information such as name, telephone, and email addresses. What does this mean for the end user? It means that a friend whose picture they took on their phone, who has a Facebook page, a Twitter stream, a Flickr account, listens to Pandora, and shares her location via Google Latitude can be presented as a single persona. And the openness of the underlying platform allows for her persona to be built upon via contributing third party apps.
What does this mean for carriers and manufacturers who have heavily customized the contacts functionality in Android to present their own view of the world to the user? They have to retro-fit and integrate. And quickly. They will not be able to upgrade their devices to Android 2.0 or above unless they support the Account Sync feature, because you can be sure that a multitude of applications (Facebook and Twitter being the first and foremost amongst them) will make heavy usage of this feature.
Net-Net: Innovate Judiciously
With the current rate of change being seen on the base Android platform, and openness being more of a third party tool and a consumer benefit, judicious innovation on the Android platform will still allow carriers and manufacturers to stand apart in an increasingly crowded space.
So currently, how can carrier or manufacturer innovate judiciously on Android? Several ways:
Is a complete reskinning of Android and its core apps possible for a carrier or manufacturer on Android? Yes it is. It’s an open platform. However, with the current rate of change for Android and consumers clamoring for the latest and greatest, it makes much more sense to innovate judiciously and leave the path open to less painful and more frequent upgrades. The rate of change on the base Android platform will eventually slow once Android has reached a baseline of maturity. That could be when the disruptive innovation on Android will truly be unleashed.