Watching the Tide Turn – The Evolution of Android

April 23, 2013 by Lisa Oshima | Developers, Google Glass, Mobile

A year ago plus, when my tech-savvy friends and colleagues (that didn’t work at Google or Motorola) discovered that I used Android, they gave me strange looks.  Those looks were equal parts bafflement and disgust, and were almost always accompanied by asking, “Why Android?” – as if to say, “As someone who knows mobile, shouldn’t you be using an iPhone?!”

If you’re a fellow long-time Android user with any mobile street cred living in the Bay Area/ Silicon Valley, you know ‘the look’ that I’m talking about.  There was a time when “all of the cool kids” in tech were exclusively carrying iOS, and Android users, no matter how mobile savvy, were playfully mocked.  To date, no one I know in tech has ever been mocked for carrying an iPhone.  Historically, it was the “safe” choice, and it’s easy to see why… Apple makes amazing devices- beautiful and elegant with a selection of well-designed, innovative mobile apps.  I own iPhone, iPod and iPad, but I started using Android as my primary mobile phone in the early days because:

  • There were better multi-tasking capabilities
  • I could switch back and forth between screens and applications easily without closing apps, and it also had cut and paste
  • Android worked better than iPhone for the things I did most on my phone like Gmail and browsing the web and using multiple browser windows
  • Android managed my calendar and email more seamlessly across devices

Apple has improved massively on all of these fronts since the early days and still leads when it comes to the quality and selection of third party apps.  However, Android is rapidly improving on things that Apple has been historically better at like apps, access to music, and movies.  What hasn’t changed for either OS is the ethos of their ecosystems.

Android’s ecosystem is more “open” than Apple’s. By having a closed ecosystem, Apple has greater control over quality and consumer safety, but hardware innovation is left to Apple’s own teams, which means that consumers have little choice on form factor.  Android’s open ecosystem allows developers to make apps across a wider variety of categories, and it encourages competition between OEMs, which hopefully leads to better hardware innovation in the long run.  Theoretically, Android OEMs must work quickly and creatively to build a device that beats the competition in their own OS category, and they need to iterate their devices more quickly than Apple to keep up with competition from other Android OEMs.

An early example of how Android sparked innovation can be seen in the Android device I used before my Xperia Z and Galaxy Nexus, the Motorola Atrix.  While the Atrix didn’t have the quality or selection of apps that were available for the iPhone, it did have better multi-tasking capabilities and two processors, which made it fast. Better yet, it was different than anything else out there, and it was full of possibility.  It came with a laptop-dock accessory that turned a phone into an internet browsing and typing machine.  Even though the first rev Atrix docking experience wasn’t as good as it could have been, with Android, Motorola pushed the boundaries of what mobile could do, and that was great for innovation and the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, having an open ecosystem doesn’t always work in the consumer’s favor.  It can encourage OEMs to compete more on price than quality.  If you’re an Android OEM that can’t (or doesn’t want) to compete with Apple on quality, you’re likely better off competing in a less technically sophisticated category where buyers are more price sensitive.  The race to churn out cheap, highly subsidized Android phones quickly has resulted in a less than ideal experience for many consumers and a perception problem for Android, even though Samsung, HTC, and others are now making phenomenal Android devices.

The cheap device problem is compounded by device fragmentation which is caused by the intense speed at which the Android OS has evolved. Fragmentation is an issue for consumers because it impacts the quality of applications, and it impacts developers’ ability to easily create an app that work seamlessly across all Android devices.  In the old days, people used to say, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”  These days, I hear developers say similar things about developing for iOS first, and it’s easy to see why:

  1. There is less device fragmentation on iOS, which means that there is less engineering and support effort involved with supporting iOS.
  2. The grapevine has always had it that iOS is easier to monetize, and recent stats back it up.  According to the new App Annie Market Index, “While Google Play reached close to 90% of the iOS App Store downloads in Q1 2013, the iOS App Store maintained its strong lead in monetization, earning about 2.6x the app revenue of Google Play.”
  3. Most of the VCs I know carry an iPhone, and developers want to make sure their VCs can use their apps. Like the old adage says, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

I could go on. Plenty of articles have been written on why developers develop on iOS first, including a great one from the Guardian “iOS v Android: why Schmidt was wrong and developers still start on Apple”.  Despite all of this, developers are making great apps for Android.  Why? Developers that are serious about mobile cannot ignore Android consumers. Android is now bigger than iOS in terms of device sales. Android’s last two OS releases, Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean, are much better than previous versions. Developers are discovering that if they make apps that run on these two platforms alone, they can capture a ton of new users. So even though many developers target iOS first, they often look to Android for growth.

Last year, Android began catching up with Apple in the hardware stakes. Check out this side-by-side iOS vs. Android phone comparison from the Huffington Post, showing several Android phones that were comparable, if not better than than iPhone.  And, it’s only gotten better in the months since then.  In a recent article, Venture Beat described three ways that Android is “kicking the iPhone 5 to the curb.” Android OEMs are now making amazing, high end devices – particularly the various Nexus products from Google, the S3, S4, and Galaxy Note from Samsung, and other advanced mobile devices.

Most of the “cool kids” I know in tech outside of Google still carry iPhones, but these days, I don’t get that disparaging ‘look’ when I pull out my Android devices.  Now, I get compliments.  For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying the waterproof Sony Xperia Z.  Submerging it in a glass of water or purposefully spilling water on top over lunch never fails to impress.  And, as of last Saturday, I’m one of the first Google Glass Explorers and am having a great time thinking about the possibilities of this revolutionary new platform. (I’ll be writing about my perceptions in a future post, but you can check out parts of my day wearing Google Glass yesterday here.)

The tide of public perception around Android is turning quickly as the  pace of Android innovation accelerates.  Intensification of Android innovation is good thing, not only for Android users but for the mobile industry as a whole.  Increased innovation on one platform raises the stakes for the others and intensifies competition which spurs increased innovation and benefits users, regardless of platform.

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