A few days ago Bloomberg Businessweek dropped a bombshell of sorts when it broke a story regarding Android entitled: “Do Not Anger the Alpha Android”. In it, Bloomberg stated that: “companies hoping to receive early access to Google’s most up-to-date software will need approval of their plans…from Andy Rubin” (from Google). There is also mention that: “Google has also tried to hold up the release of Verizon Android devices that make use of… (the) Bing search engine”. These are two different problems I want to explore separately.
Google, like Apple and Microsoft and RIM are allowed to make whatever changes they like to their own Operating System (OS). They can change the terms of their partner agreement anytime they like too - that’s their prerogative though it may come with some fallout. The problem lays with the fact that Google has created the fragmentation problem themselves. They have pushed out release after release in quick succession, given their manufacturers the green light to do what they want with it and they have touted their OS as open. In so doing the phone manufacturers and carriers have flocked to their OS and new Android based phones meant other companies could finally tweak the system they way they wanted. Basing their software on Android meant having a background of apps that will run on their devices but the “heavy lifting” of the OS as it were was left for Google. The attraction to the manufacturers is obvious as there are no real licencing fees to Google for using Android compared to Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 for example or for the cost of developing your own OS in-house. The attraction to carriers is also obvious: they can put whatever software they like on the phone, unlike for the iPhone. More choice for all concerned - it certainly sounds great.
Google has been solely in the business of search for a long time and Android was something Google bought in 2005 and then ran with it making it open source (under an Apache licence) in 2008. Apple and Microsoft have been developing their OSes for quite a bit longer than Google and that means knowing how to avoid fragmentation and amongst other things, providing a better set of development tools and more controlled OS updates. Google has a habit of throwing software projects at the wall to see what sticks like Buzz, and Wave for example. It’s not really an attitude that cuts it for an OS that needs stability and support long term.
Here’s my problem: Google really didn’t think through enough the consequences of their choices. Mistakes made by Apple and Microsoft many years ago were pushed to one side as they went all out to bring their new OS to the masses any enticing way they could - consequences be damned. They created this rod for their own backs - so naturally when it dawns on them that this fragmentation problem is really starting to hurt them they need to put the brakes on. Fair enough. Just don’t expect everyone to let it pass as Google have then started to break some rather key promises about what they wouldn’t do with their OS.
Does it mean Android is no longer open? Of course not. It does however mean that the “skins” that Motorola (MotoBlur) and HTC (Sense UI) in particular were putting on top of Android may have their wings clipped or worst-case could be doomed entirely - we’ll have to wait and see. Googles problem now is trying not to lose the big manufacturers support - especially those two I mentioned as they have been two of the biggest reasons for Androids current success. (Samsung being the third big one)
Now to the Bing controversy. There’s no doubt that Bing is gathering momentum against Google search. Microsoft have thrown a lot of money at Bing and its results are improving. With Windows Phone 7 and Windows 7 having Bing built in and the iPhone supporting it as an alternative to Google, the threat is becoming real. Let’s face it: Google have been virtually unopposed in internet search for a decade now and Bing has been the first really credible threat to them. Given that search is Googles core business it’s fair for them to cut Microsoft out of their mobile OS. In their place, I’d do the same. That said, Bing still has a long way to go before they’re even half the size of Google search, but why let them even get that close if you have the power to prevent it?
It may well come to pass that Microsoft will offer Bing and Yahoo search integrated into their OS (although WP7 Search Centre aimed to change that) and Android will only have Google search integrated. Apple, who has no such search engine business of its own to push (yet) will happily offer whatever you like. The consumer will choose in the end what matters most. If it does become a point of differentiation then the end result is only a positive for the end user as the search companies try to outdo each other to get your business.
Google can do what it likes with Android but this exercise is the beginning of Google flexing its muscles with Android in a way that will inevitably ruffle feathers. If they can pull it off and still keep their key partners then the results will likely be very positive for their OS and therefore also positive for the end user.
I must admit though, I have my doubts about where this is all heading.