Android As We Know It Will Die In The Next Two Years

Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich statue

[credit provider=”Google”]

used to think that, as with Linux and web services in the early part of last decade, Android was going to be the mortar for the Internet of post PC devices— an essential ingredient to put stuff together.And as bonus, unlike Linux which puttered away quietly in the background doing the heavy lifting for services like Amazon and Google, Android was largely user-facing and would also therefore benefit from massive platform scale (and the resulting de-facto standard it would create) the way no piece of software since Microsoft Windows had.

To to see the early onslaught of CES announcements, one would think so.

What all of the talk of Android momentum and inevitabilityobscures though is that the dream of a common Android that developers can write/deploy apps to and users can become familiar with is burning.

More specifically, three events in 2011 burned it and we’re now holding on to a charred corpse that is quite different: an Android so splintered that it will make the glass on your Galaxy Nexus S2 Prime Pie dropped on concrete look like an ice skating rink.

The three events: 1. Google buying Motorola and alienating all of the tier one handset makers (none of which to this day have the spine to state it publicly but all of which have now come up with their “plan B”), 2. Microsoft extracting licensing fees from these same handset makers in the form of IP indemnification and 3. Amazon shipping a wildly successful, yet unidentifiable, version of an old Android build over the holiday… and making it a wild success. Of the the three, #1 was completely avoidable but the other two may just have been the name of the game when there is so much at stake in the fight of who paints the interface for the next generation of computing.

The result of this elephant dance? Well it depends on who you are:

Web heads: All of the HTML5 folks should be ecstatic as it means that despite the laggy performance of mobile Webkit based “applications,” we are going to see a resurgence in startups who target the emerging Android splinters with interfaces which leave the heavy lifting on the deployment side to the the web (see the bit about how the Kindle Fire blocked the Google Market and vice versa for why) and on the runtime side to the mobile browser. It won’t be as nice and in the short-term and it will lack access to key device sensors (though it may accelerate our getting those as API extensions of the DOM) but it is just not feasible to support iOS, Googlorola Android, HTC Sensedroid, Amazon Fire Droid, etc. if you are a startup. Big win for this emerging standard.

Users: Remember the olden days when the carriers were in charge and you got whatever they were serving for dinner? Well we aren’t ever going back to that but I can’t help remember a conversation I had with the head of product for a US carrier last year at Mobile World Congress where he told me that their ideal world was “5-10 platforms with 10-20% each.” Why? Because in that mess someone has to help the user figure it all out and they are back to being in a pole position. I’m not sure they’ll pull it off but device OS fragmentation definitely gives them another at-bat and if there is one thing these guys have proven it is that preloads work magic to overcome totally busted user experiences.

Let’s not forget of course that as users you’ll have to deal with the aforementioned jankiness of HTML5 applications for a few revs. Trust me though, short-term pain, long-term benefit.*

Entrepreneurs: last year my advice was, build iOS and mobile web app and wait until you’ve got a million downloads before targeting Android. I see almost no one pursuing that approach these days, so I’ll revise it a little: build an iOS app and a mobile web app and then go hunting for dollars/help to develop for the splinters of Android, opting to build yourself only the most generic bits of app code that you will for sure be able to reuse. If you want to get on a market where no one will pay you either in $s or in in-kind promotion, go super lean and build all of your interface in Mobile Webkit (through something like Phonegap) until you’ve got a feel for whether the particular splinter presents a juicy vein of user adoption.

It not a particularly well-kept secret that when WebOS was in its death spiral, HP would happily pay developers to port any application which had shown traction to their platform. To my knowledge the Android tier one handset guys have not done this yet, but given a little time it may become a reality. There will still be all sorts of headaches involved, and you might be better off taking the love from Microsoft, but in a world of several warring Androids, you are the scarce commodity.

Though the more popular splinters such as Amazon’s will likely never have to pay for developers, especially given the fact that with only one Christmas under their belt, they are already outperforming the standard Google Market in terms of downloads for some app categories, the rest will, probably in inverse proportion to how valuable they will be to getting you users. And in the meanwhile consider them non-dilutive equity financing sources.

It’s going to be a really interesting year for mobile. Having tackled Android, I’ll do my thoughts on iOS next (and it’s not coming out all roses there either).

*Finally, one last comment on the promise of Android to be the “people’s operating system—” helping to bring general purpose computers to those who couldn’t afford it otherwise. I think this is a noble and incredibly worthwhile goal. However, in the face of all of the IP issues that are facing and will continue to face the Android splinters, I am not sure the cycles are not better spent supporting some of the emerging Ubuntu efforts around mobile phones and tablets.

While they too may be unable to escape the aggressive IP volleys of a monster industry afraid for its survival, and while there are tons of usability issues to solve, it is a viable option, especially if Shuttleworth ships his tabletized version of the OS.

Some interesting links for background reading:

Trouble with Android – on the pain of supporting screen size OS version differences.
Android is Clopen – brilliant piece on how Android is more closed than open.
Slowing Android Shipments – The Asymco magic on the platform’s growth