"Predictions" that need to stop in 2012 - Part 2: Google, Android & "fragmentation"
The CES engines haven't revved up to speed yet, so we thought that now might be a good time for "predictions" on what the coming year will have for us in terms of Google. We're not really the clairvoyant types, so we'd rather just mention the things we all know will happen and talk about why we don't need to hear any more about it. We'll also toss in some things that we'd really really like to see, but have no idea whether they will happen or not. Last time, we talked about Apple's iOS devices, which will perpetually be the engine of the mobile tech rumor machine, regardless of our musings. This time around, we wanted to talk about Google, Android, and the Android manufacturing partners. Of course, one big trouble facing this article is that analysts don't really waste much time by talking about things that are essentially common sense when it comes to Android, so we'll also be spending a fair bit more time on broad trends in the Android ecosystem.
Let's start off with the reason Android exists: Google. Google is a huge company and has a number of mobile products, but ultimately, all of these products run through Android at some point. Also, despite the continued push to acquire Motorola, Google is not yet a hardware company, so most of the predictions must come in the fuzzy software side of things, which for various reasons is far more difficult to pin down than hardware. Mainly, the issue is that hardware often has a defined evolutionary path - CPUs get faster/more cores, storage gets larger, screens get more resolution, etc - whereas software is more the representation of the personality leading the company. Apple was led for a long time by Steve Jobs, and his personality still permeates the company. This leads to a tightly controlled and integrated software ecosystem from desktop to mobile to the cloud.
Google had been led by the committee of Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt for a long time, which led to a vast collection of products without a real cohesion to them all, not to mention a number of products that had duplicate functionality. Since Larry Page has taken over as CEO, we've seen far more focus and integration come to Google products. Unnecessary products have been killed, and through Google+ we've seen more integration and design unification across Google products, and no doubt this will continue. To that point, 2012 seems to be shaping up to be a year of integration and polish for Google.
The integration will continue, but what we really need to see on Android is the polish for that integration. Android 4.0 has taken a huge leap forward in polishing the Android UI and giving a consistent experience, but Android still has some niggling problems with various Google services that need to be fixed. For example, if YouTube is going to be the one-stop video shop for Google, there needs to be an option to resume a video from mobile to desktop or visa versa. This is a standard feature of streaming video systems like Netflix and Hulu, so it needs to be part of YouTube. The fact that it doesn't exist keeps people away from watching longer videos and movies on YouTube, and reinforces the idea that YouTube is for short-form content. Similarly, Google Voice still needs MMS support. Google+ still needs to fix the problem that should never have existed to begin: properly posting links shared from mobile. Google Docs needs to finish the transition into being Google Drive. And, there are plenty of other small issues with each mobile product that need to be fixed.
We don't want to harp on it much, but just one quick note on the Nexus tablet, since we've already covered the idea that the Nexus will "cannibalize" other Android tablet sales: we don't need any more "predictions" that it will launch in Q2 of 2012, or at the end of spring, or beginning of summer, or whatever. The Nexus tablet will be launched in time for Google I/O on June 27th, that's all we need to know on that. Some hard specs, price, and manufacturer would be nice, though.
However, niggling problems are not the real reason we're here. It's Android. And, the number one prediction that we never want to hear anymore is anything to do with "fragmentation". "Fragmentation" is a negative marketing word used by Apple to denigrate the Android system, but it is the completely wrong word to describe the issue, and makes it sound far worse than it is. The Android ecosystem is not fragmented; it is inconsistent at worst, and unique at best.
The idea that Android is fragmented insinuates that there is some sort of "complete" Android that could exist, if only... and that's where the idea dies, in that "if only", because the "if only" always ends with a suggestion that Google be more like Apple. If only Google would control the ecosystem more. If only Google would enforce stricter rules on Android. If only... Why does it end that way? Because "fragmentation" is a negative marketing word created by Apple. Both the CEO of Motorola and Eric Schmidt himself have tried pushing a change of terminology for Android by saying it is "differentiated", but that skews too far on the positive end.
Android's problem is inconsistency, which of course is just the opposite of saying that Android's strength is its uniqueness, which is why the idea is one in the same. At its worst, Android is the system on a cheap knockoff device with no access to Google apps or the Android Market, or it's a terrible manufacturer UI that hurts the user experience and delays OS updates. At its best, Android is whatever you want it to be. If you want the more candy-coated Apple-like simplicity, there are Samsung devices. If you want a curated ecosystem, there is Amazon. If you want glittery animations and crisp visuals, there are HTC devices. If you want something a bit more robotic, utilitarian, or businesslike, there are Motorola devices. If you just want Android, pure and true, there are Google Nexus devices.
But, underneath all of that, it is essentially the same system that runs all the same apps. And, those apps are the last bastion for those who would decry Android as "fragmented", because with Google requiring all Android 4.0 devices to carry the Holo theme, developers can make sure that their apps use that theme and therefore have a consistent feel across devices, regardless of the manufacturer UI. And, once the apps are consistent, what exactly will the "fragmentation" argument be? That not all Android devices are running the same OS version. Well, here's the dirty secret: people are lazy, so no OS on any device has every user running the same version. But, that doesn't matter because the apps still work.
Tablets, tablets everywhere. If CES has proven nothing else so far, it's shown that we need to prepare for the coming onslaught of Android tablets. This will be the year where there will be a tablet available at every price point, and every size. We've seen tablets for under $200, and we've seen tablets at every form factor from 5" all the way to a seemingly ridiculous 13.3". And, of course, where there are Android tablets, analysts will be beating each other with pipes to be the first one to call a certain tablet the "iPad killer" or be the first to announce that this will be the year that Android tablets finally start making a real dent in the iPad's dominance, but we don't want to hear it.
Firstly, the idea of an "iPad killer" is just as absurd as that of an "iPhone killer", because both devices have huge and very loyal fanbases, and because Apple is a quality company that has been very well run. No device can "kill" the iPhone or iPad because there will always be people lining up to buy those devices, not because of the quality of the device, but because of the quality of the ecosystem that Apple has built. An iPad or iPhone "killer" would need to also be an iTunes killer, and an iCloud killer in addition to somehow creating a device with as much cultural resonance. It would somehow need to capture the limited imagination of the mass media and be able to be explained on its own terms to a non-tech savvy local TV audience, which means you'd have to be able to explain it without comparing it to an Apple device.
We don't want to hear about the tablet war overall not because it won't eventually be true that Android will take away Apple's majority share, but because it's already started to happen. Android has already taken 30% of the tablet market from the iPad, which is a sizable chunk. The latest reports put the iPad's "dominance" of the tablet market somewhere closer to what would more appropriately be called a "majority share" of around 65%. There will no doubt be arguments over whether or not the Amazon Kindle Fire should be held up as part of the Android tablet market share because it isn't a Googlefied tablet, but a forked ecosystem separate from the Google mass of Android, but of course that argument misses the point as well.
Android is not a singular thing, but a collection. Android is like a continent, let's use Asia as an example. Google Android would be Russia, a huge portion of Asia, but not the entire thing, because there are many smaller countries which are also part of the whole. Google's Android is Russia, the dominant land mass of Asia, non-Google Android devices are China, still a large section, but not the majority by a long shot, and still connected to the mainland. We'll say that Amazon is Japan, an insulated nation not really connected to the mainland, but sharing similar cultural traits. That's the way Android works, that's what it is because that's what Google wanted to create. Some may not like it, but that doesn't change the fact of what it is.
The only other topic that we expect to hear more about than we care to is the repetition of numbers showing whether iOS or Android are gaining market share overall. It just doesn't matter. Android and iOS are dominating the smartphone and tablet landscape, and have been for a few years now. So, the continuation of that trend just isn't interesting to anyone except for fanboys who want to use it to prove that iPhone is "the best" because it's the best selling smartphone, or that Android is "the best" because it has the overall market share. Android and iOS are the top dogs and both are extremely successful. That's old hat. But, you know what's more interesting than rehashing those numbers of the titans clashing? The underdogs that could make a run in 2012, which will bring us to:
Part 3: Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and the rest of the competitors
And, of course if you missed it, definitely check out Part 1: Apple