Google redirected its Android operating system after the iPhone was announced to look and feel more like iOS (the iPhone operating system) with Apps in grids and too many other things to list here. They did it to ensure that Google was able to get a foot in the door of the increasingly important mobile computing market.
Their strategy was simple: make it open enough that major OEMs would simply take a copy and run with it rather that roll their own operating system, but not make it too open such that devices had to support Google services in order to have naming rights for their device. OEMs would iterate and support the physical hardware and all Google needed to do to make money was to channel search queries, location information and contact details through their own ecosystem which could then drive their advertising business.
As many OEMs took up Android initially there was a massive surge of Android devices in the mobile market and quickly the devices outnumbered those by competitors. There were two popular strategies: skin it, or fork it. Skinning (Samsung, HTC) puts a polish on top of the user interface without changing too much of the usability. Usually it includes some customised Apps but it can be updated without too much effort to work with the latest Android release from Google, with all of the benefits therein. Forking (Amazon) is far more drastic and in these cases any hope of keeping the operating system up to date with Googles latest release is set aside and no integration with Google services is typically included. With either strategy, OEMs still wanted to make their devices their own, not just a “Google device” and this means that customisation is critically important.
Recently Facebook Home (a different kind of skin) made an appearance on Android. I’ve written previously about the wisdom/usefulness of it as a concept. It demonstrates a direction now being taken by the OEMs is to gradually insert more and more of their own services ahead of Googles on their Android device. Google says it is impressed and happy with Facebook Home as it demonstrates the openness of Android. Facebook Home is the next salvo from a company that represents a combined userbase that exceeds Androids install base across all manufacturers. If Facebook Home proves to be successful and it starts inserting more layers between Googles services and its own, Google faces a further devaluation of Android on a scale beyond that which Samsung has already achieved with their Galaxy series smartphones.
Google surely can not be happy faced with a future where OEMs and corporations take away “Googles” mobile data using the very operating system they “gave away”. Google’s cry is “We Love OEMs Using Android” but in reality it is: “We Love OEMs So Long As You’re Not As Popular As Us”
Android has allowed OEMs to get products out into the market quickly with Google bearing the brunt of the operating system development burden. As each OEM gathers in strength, the task of adding more and more services and pulling away Googles advantage becomes increasing straightforward. With Facebook now aggressively entering the war for mobile, Google must be concerned if and how they can turn the tide back in their favour. In several years time there will be more fragmentation, with the number of users using Google services on mobile trending downward, and Facebook or maybe even Twitter skinning their existing install base and dwindling Androids value to Google. Apple will be sitting behind its “walled garden” with iOS, still pulling in big profits without having to sell itself to OEMs to get the revenue they enjoy, and Google may well be sitting back looking at its creation, and wondering where it all went wrong.