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Will Android Fail?

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Will Google's mistakes end its dreams of iPhone-like dominance?

As Google unwrapped its highly touted Nexus One smartphone, widely viewed as the first true iPhone killer, the consumer technology world was salivating with anticipation.  The search engine giant had just launched its first direct attack in a battle against rival Apple that has seen a flurry of recent competing acquisitions, as well as the resignation of Google CEO Eric Schmidt from Apple’s board of directors due to competing ideologies.  The Nexus One, which brought with it for the first time the full marketing prowess of Google as well as its direct involvement in the manufacture and sale of an Android device, was poised to accelerate the smartphone industry to previously unheard-of heights.

As it turns out, though, the Nexus One has been deemed by much of the industry to be “not in any way the Earth-shattering, paradigm-skewing device the media and community cheerleaders have built it up to be.”  Instead, it is the latest in a series of missteps by Google as it struggles to balance the unique demands of a complex mobile ecosystem with its unfortunate desire to maintain some modicum of control over its fledgling software platform and the hardware that runs it.

Background

So what happened?  For that, we return to late 2008 as the company launched its first major Android device on T-Mobile, the G1.  What followed was a six-month period that saw little to no hardware development or acquisition of new mobile developers by Google for its App Store equivalent, Android Market.  What’s more, Google was forced to balance the demands of a convoluted mobile carrier infrastructure, such that the appearance of Google-branded devices on Verizon and AT&T, et. al (once thought to be a near certainty by mid 2009) did not come to pass.  Instead, we saw what were known as “Google experience” devices that provided neither the ease of use nor the tight integration synonymous with the assumed capabilities of Android.

Cut to fall 2009, and the announcement that Google and Motorola have collaborated to bring what would be known as the Motorola Droid to Verizon.  With it came the first major Android software advancement since the launch of the G1: Android 2.0.  Shortly after the universally successful device launch, long-abandoned rumors surrounding Google’s future as a direct manufacturer and device sales outlet began swirling, and it was soon almost common knowledge that a “Googlephone” was imminent, one that was independent of Google’s current Android hardware partners and the surefire iPhone killer that the industry so desired.

With the launch of the Nexus One, Google had, in one fell swoop, relegated the Droid to also-ran status and alienated its largest mobile carrier and hardware partners to that point.  Such a move could prove to be fatal to the Android platform, especially in light of the recent intensification of rumors that Verizon is courting the iPhone, as well as Apple’s forthcoming tablet device, for late spring/early summer launches.

So what went wrong?

In analyzing this potentially catastrophic set of decisions, one must return first and foremost to Google’s initial partnership with T-Mobile.  Currently the #4 US mobile provider, T-Mobile’s market penetration and coverage map were never enough to satisfy Google’s craving for Apple blood, which makes its decision to continue the relationship with the carrier by way of a subsidized Nexus One (in addition to the device’s more widely known unlocked option) all the more puzzling.

Next, we must address Google’s misguided and extensive hardware focus, as opposed to attracting developers to the Android platform to achieve anything close to overall feature parity with iPhone.  While it is important for any platform that lacks the closed ecosystem of the Apple machine to differentiate its offerings through a variety of unique partnerships (hopefully resulting in a variety of unique devices as well), the overall lack of hardware refinements leads one to question whether the company’s energies would have been better spent addressing the revenue stream that will drive the next several decades of mobile advancement.  Though customer satisfaction numbers across both platforms are relatively equal, the continued absence of large developers such as Sling Media on Android can only serve to enhance this major concern in the future as consumers clamor for the phone that “does it all” and Google finds itself unable to deliver.

Finally, Google’s alienation of its existing Android user base cannot go unnoticed.  It has systematically dismantled the trust built between Verizon and its Android users as the carrier makes its first real attempt at transparency.  Perhaps more pressing, though, is its method of launching major software updates with new devices while leaving existing owners searching for unnecessary workarounds to enable desired features, a move that directly contradicts its commitment to Android as an open platform.

What does this mean for the mobile marketer?

All of this has tremendous implications for the mobile marketer as they navigate the complex landscape.  For firms already dedicated to developing for Android, the fragmentation of the device market coupled with the overall lack of subsidized marketing resources available to them (in large part due to there being no software front end for the purchase and syncing of applications to the device) could have the exact opposite effect of what Google had intended in that it would drive more away from the platform.

For firms exploring their mobile development options, this could result in a substantial reallocation of planned resources away from Android and will likely require more intensive study on the part of firms to deduce which device is most targeted to its primary demographic.  Either option, unfortunately, will require more up-front capital, which reduces the overall cost-benefit ratio and further calls into question whether Google can attract, let alone retain, top tier developers.

Most of all, such continued uncertainty in the mobile market has a negative impact on social marketing as a whole.  Mobile engineers continue to find resistance when seeking executive commitments to launch more innovative tactics.  Firms who have not yet explored social media become more unlikely to do so on any platform.  And, most unfortunately, the “mobile monetization for original content” movement that is steadily gaining steam will only be delayed that much more.

Ultimately, analyzing Google’s Android motives could prove impossible, but providing insight on the potential impact to the smartphone industry as a whole is far less daunting a task.  As we move into the world of fourth-generation data (4G), consumers’ choices will become almost limitless, and the capabilities of their devices even more so.  As such, they must decide whether to support a platform with a high degree of openness and the possibility of little to no future acknowledgement by the software creator, or one with a closed intrastructure but a seemingly infinite number of sustainable options.  Marketers, likewise, will be forced to assess  their platform of choice in the short term, their social media budgets in the long term, and their commitments to social media at all.

Google, it appears, has already made its choices, and in doing so it might have ceded the entirety of the mobile platform wars to Apple before they ever truly began.

This post was written by Kevin McElligott. Kevin is an intern at Walker Sands currently studying Marketing and Public Relations at Columbia College.

Creative Commons License photo credit: CIAT - International Center for Tropical Agricultu