Not will, but should Android ICS beat the iPhone 5 to market?

Not will, but should Android ICS beat the iPhone 5 to market?
Android's next iteration, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), has been popping up in the news more recently, but we haven't slowed things down in order to really examine what we've been seeing. First, we heard a rumor that Google is trying to rush out ICS in order to compete head to head with the iPhone 5, which is expected to be announced in September and released in October. Then, we saw pictures that were reported to be early screenshots of ICS running on a Nexus S. Ice Cream Sandwich looks to be one of the biggest Android releases, because with it comes the big task of reconciling the two separate development paths that Android has taken, and merge the Gingerbread phone OS (2.3.x) with the Honeycomb tablet OS (3.0/3.1). 

Rushing software means rushing hardware

Much like with the iPhone, we have to keep in mind that Google rushing Ice Cream Sandwich has impacts both on hardware and software. To rush Ice Cream Sandwich, also means to rush the Nexus Prime, and the Android ecosystem has already seen what rushing out an OS can look like, twice actually. First, while Gingerbread wasn't rushed out, it certainly felt like the Nexus S was rushed in order to launch in time for the holidays last year. This meant, that unlike the Nexus One, which drove improvements around the Android ecosystem, the Nexus S was actually a generation behind within a few months of release, because of the coming of Tegra 2 phones with qHD screens. So, instead of the Google Experience phone being the pace car for users, manufacturers and developers, the Nexus S quickly became an afterthought. 

Then, we saw Honeycomb was rushed out in order to compete head to head with the iPad 2, and because Honeycomb was rushed, so was the Motorola Xoom. As a result there, the Xoom was a little too heavy, too bland in design, and too expensive, while Honeycomb was buggy and lacking in natively designed 3rd party apps. Imagine that instead of pushing the Xoom so hard, Google had simply seeded the developer community with Honeycomb, and tested longer. The, start the Honeycomb party a few months later with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Android 3.1 at Google I/O? Imagine erasing the Xoom from the board all together, and having the Android tablet charge begin in May with the $400 Asus Transformer, and the sleek and sexy Galaxy Tab 10.1. The three month head start for Apple seems like a reasonable trade-off for having better developer support and more consumer interest that would have come with not having an $800 beast be the first impression of Honeycomb.

That brings us to Ice Cream Sandwich and the Nexus Prime. We know that NVIDIA has already pushed back the expected release of the quad-core Tegra 3 chipsets, so if we're hoping for that to power the Prime, we'd have to wait until early 2012. Of course, the newly teased relationship between Google and Texas Instruments could mean that the Tegra 3 has already been removed from the equation. If it has, will we see the same fate for the Prime as for the Nexus S? A dual-core TI CPU would have to be really good to stand up against the first quad-core offerings that would come a few months afterwards. And, that's not even taking into account the 768x1280 screens from Samsung that we're already hoping to see grace the Nexus Prime. There's no guarantee that Samsung could bring that screen to market in time for October.

Head-to-head doesn't necessarily mean competition

As we've already seen with the Motorola Xoom, releasing head-to-head doesn't mean competition, and even less so with the Nexus device which we all know will launch Ice Cream Sandwich into the market. The Motorola Xoom had more advertising behind it than any Nexus device, and probably more consumer excitement as well, but it still fell flat when compared to the iPad, mostly due to low developer support. The story will be a bit different for the Nexus Prime, but not markedly so.

Keep in mind that Nexus devices have always been niche devices. They are designed for developers, early adopters, and a generally more geeky crowd. No Nexus device has ever officially been sold by either of the two biggest carriers in America - Verizon and AT&T. Nexus devices have been offered through Google that run on AT&T, but that's a far cry from seeing it sold in the official stores across the country. The Nexus S, which had far better marketing and availability than the Web Store-only Nexus One, only sold approximately 500,000 units in its first two months in the market (based on Gingerbread OS share in February, when the Nexus S was the only phone running Gingerbread.) If the iPhone 5 sells less than 500,000 just in pre-orders, let alone half of launch day, every analyst in existence would call it a failure. 

And, that's the real point, even if Google rushes out Ice Cream Sandwich to launch in October, it'll still only be running on the Nexus Prime. The Nexus S and Gingerbread launched at the beginning of December last year, and even the Nexus One had to wait until the middle of February 2011 for the official update. Even today, a full 8 months after its release, Gingerbread is still less than 25% of the Android ecosystem. Even if Google pushed out ICS in time for October, the upgrade turnaround for manufacturers kills any illusion that ICS will ever really compete with iOS 5 at any point in its life cycle. The only possible incentive for Google to push out a product that may not be ready is the hope that other manufacturers could then have ICS devices available for the Christmas season, but that is a pretty big reach.

Use Matias Duarte

If the leaked images we saw of Ice Cream Sandwich do turn out to be real, ICS will be a huge disappointment. We have our reasons for being highly skeptical of the images we saw based on version number labels, and the kernel version listed. But, the biggest reason that many of us are skeptical of those pictures is that the UI changes aren't that impressive. When we first saw what Matias Duarte had created with the Honeycomb UI, we were all blown away, because for once an Android device looked amazing without the need for a custom overlay. The first time seeing Honeycomb had that wow-factor that most Android devices only achieve with a custom UI like HTC Sense. The leaked pictures we saw would make it seem like Google isn't using Matias's immense design skills and is simply trying to converge the two Android paths in the background.

Google has been building better tools to allow developers to manage apps across Android versions with the fragments system, and the Android Market being able to handle multiple APKs. But, rather than leave developers to manage multiple APKs, the promise of Ice Cream Sandwich was write once, and it would scale itself to run anywhere. This is a major goal for the next iteration of Android, but the phone UI needs a major overhaul as well, and we aren't seeing that in the leaked shots. Matias Duarte was one of the main forces behind the beautiful, but doomed WebOS, and even with the rush on Honeycomb, he helped make the UI shine. Google doesn't have much of a history of design, but with Mathias in house, Google has no excuses if ICS turns out to be a minor UI iteration like Froyo and Gingerbread have been.

Google needs to do Google

It may be impossible in our world of tech news to stop ourselves, but at the very least we hope Google is smart enough to realize that trying to go head-to-head with Apple will do nothing but hurt the ecosystem. Android needs to develop at its own pace, and trust that the product will carry the day (and remember that so far, seeing as Apple fell behind a long time ago in market share, Android is winning the day.) We've mentioned before that Apple and Google are playing two different games: Apple is striving for the biggest margins and revenue, while Google is aiming for market ubiquity. And, through that lens, both companies are winning. Apple keeps its revenues his gh by pushing out updates on a strict schedule and making old hardware obsolete on just as strict a schedule. Google is already on its way to winning the market share battle, and so doesn't need to react to anything that Apple does. Google just needs to keep its own house in order.

Assuming Google keeps running Android as it has, we should never expect to see a unified UI across all devices. Google wants to leave the system open and give manufacturers the option to differentiate through custom UIs. Until now, that has lead to OS fragmentation because the custom UIs delay OS updates. Google could help to fix this by creating an official theme system withing Android that manufacturers could then fit their custom UIs into, thus making updates faster. The only trouble with this is that if Google standardizes the system, there's a good chance that the custom UIs would end up ripped out and shared around the Android ecosystem so users can install whatever they please, meaning HTC Sense on Motorola devices, and TouchWiz on LG phones. Even if there is a fairly minimal proportion of users that do this, it does hurt brand differentiation.

Manufacturers need to be able to differentiate, because otherwise they have to start looking to other ways to compete within the Android ecosystem. We've already heard about Motorola possibly going after Android royalties, and this could serve as a terrible precedent. Apple and RIM don't need to worry about manufacturer in-fighting because they make the software and hardware. Even Microsoft doesn't have to worry as much, because the OS restrictions don't allow for much differentiation for manufacturers. Android, as always, is the wild west, and Google is the reluctant town Sheriff.

Conclusion

Google would rather guide manufacturers with a carrot in the form of a Nexus device, than lead with a strong hand. Google didn't want to mandate better screens, faster processors, bigger internal storage or NFC, but building those features into the Nexus One and Nexus S gave manufacturers a template from which to draw. The same standards apply to the Nexus Prime, but rushing it out for a futile head-to-head with the iPhone does nothing but hurt the effectiveness of that guiding hand. Unlike Apple, which has the relative luxury of taking a year off and pushing a minor update like the iPhone 3Gs, Google needs to keep pushing every year. Apple is the only car in the iOS race, but Nexus devices are meant to be the pace car for the entire ecosystem. If the Nexus devices can't stay out in front, Google loses influence in guiding where it believes Android should go, and will be left reacting to the changes made by manufacturers who are ultimately in competition with each other.

The Nexus Prime needs to push Android hardware forward, and Ice Cream Sandwich needs to push forward the Android software platform. Nexus devices are not commercial devices, they are early adopter/developer devices. Even if the Nexus Prime launched at the same time or before the iPhone 5, to say that the two devices would be competing in any way is absurd. The iPhone 5 will be competing against the entirety of the Android ecosystem, all devices from Motorola, Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, and others. The Nexus Prime and Ice Cream Sandwich should be designed to guide those manufacturers in making Android the best it can be. There is no competition, and no need for a rush. Just make it good, Google.

images courtesy: Nitty Gritty, Cell Phone Tech School, Trends Updates, Fortune Brainstorm Tech

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