Marshmallow is here! The latest version of Android, Google’s mobile operating system, officially launched on October 5. Available for Nexus devices now, smartphone manufacturers will start rolling out the update to their devices in the weeks ahead.
It’s largely an evolutionary — rather than “revolutionary” — update, full of small tweaks and performance improvements rather than a total user interface overhaul.
When I met the head of Android in London prior to launch last month, Andrei Popescu, he said to expect “slickness.” Popescu explained that “in general with Marshmallow we’ve taken the approach that we want the whole release extremely polished — not that we didn’t have polished releases before.”
A week before launch, Google announced one of the improvements to a crowd of developers in London at Google Playtime, one of its developer conference: The increase in maximum file size for apps from 50 to 100 megabytes. It easily produced the loudest cheers that day.
At Playtime I also sat down with Mark Bennett — the head of Google Play for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) — to discuss the problems Android still faces, and what makes Europe unique.
EMEA is a tale of two halves
There’s a curious divide in the EMEA region. One the one hand, you have Europe — one of
the key markets for tech companies, with dozens of booming markets and hundreds of millions of digitally savvy citizens. And then on the other you have emerging markets in parts of Africa and the Middle East, with citizens only now coming online for the first time.
There’s a particular aspect to the Play business in Europe that you don’t see in other markets: A parity between digital content — movies, books and music, etc. — and app downloads. Elsewhere in the world, app downloads tend to dominate. “We just bought digital content service to market a lot earlier on and there’s a very strong digital content ecosystem,” Bennett says. And digital content consumption is rising in less development markets in the region: “As we enter these new emerging markets, there’s just a pent up demand for legitimate digital content services. YouTube has got one of the highest levels of consumption in the Middle East.”
In such emerging markets, a key issue is improving connectivity, and initial access to the internet. It’s also potentially highly lucrative in the long-term — a potential market of billions waiting to be tapped into. Naturally, apps for staying in touch are booming. “That’s where you see such huge demand in terms of communication apps in those markets,” says Bennett. “There’s a higher need to talk and share stuff, and there’s not the … disposable income to pay for traditional means of communication.”
But in such markets, Google’s dominance isn’t as assured as you might expect. Sure, Apple’s premium handsets are unlikely to make in-roads with first-time, low-income buyers in Kenya. But as an open-source platform, anyone can take Android and develop their own version outside of Google’s control — and many low-cost manufacturers are doing just that.
At an event at the end of September, incoming Google CEO Sundar Pichai revealed that Android now has 1.4 billion 3-day-active users. Put another way,
one in every five people on Earth now has an Android smartphone. But only 1 billion of these connected to Google Play in the last 30 days.
Google’s answer to the threat of “forked” Android is the Android One program, working with manufacturers to launch clean, low-cost Android handsets in (mostly) emerging markets. It recently launched the BQ Aquaris A4.5 in Portugal and Spain — although for $US192, significantly more than the typical $US100 pricepoint.
One frequently mentioned “forked” manufacturer is Xiaomi. A Chinese startup, it has come from nothing in five years to become one of the most valuable startups on the planet, shipping tens of millions of devices a years. Is Google worried?
“Xiaomi is a great OEM, [with] huge success in the Chinese market,” Bennett says. A number of Chinese OEMs are starting to have a lot of success, particularly in the African market … In these emerging markets the challenge is to make sure the quality bar is at a certain level and the consumers are getting the best version of Android that’s possible for them at that piece of hardware.”
And this is where Android One comes in: “Android One is really to try and give a guiding light in terms of what OEMs can still do” — to show they “can still do a low-cost device with high-quality components and have a guaranteed auto-update — actually having the latest OS on it.”
iOS, this isn’t.
Yes, Marshmallow has been released. But many Android smartphone owners may not realise for months. This is because it is the manufacturers, not Google, that is responsible for pushing out the OS to users. So if you own an LG phone, say, and the company is dragging its feet — tough luck.
Last month, I asked London Android head Andrei Popescu whether he found it frustrating. “I think it’s different,” he reasoned — pointing at the company’s hundreds of hardware partners and the billion-plus Android users as examples of the model’s ability to scale effectively.
I asked Bennett the same question. “Definitely, if you look in the past it was a really big issue.” But he points to the array of tools Google now offers developers to mitigate this “differentiated market” — particularly the Cloud Test Lab, a tool for testing apps on different Android handsets to maximise compatibility. “Developer-first mentality permeates through everything we do.”
I also spoke to Saad Choudri, the chief commercial officer at mobile games company Miniclip. Choudri was candid: “Let’s be honest, the Android platform is difficult to develop for because of device fragmentation.” But, he continues, “what Google’s done a great job of … [is to] get past those difficulties, to try and help the ecosystem move forward. They have done that through their developer console, through the developer tools they share with us, from the stuff they share with us, events like this — Apple doesn’t run events like this.”
This gets at a fundamental difference in building apps for iOS and for Android: Communication. Choudri says that Google is very good at “telling us about stuff in beta, in development, whereas I think [with] Apple we all learn as, and when, they announce it.”
There’s another key difference between iOS and Android: The revenue gap. Historically, iOS has been the more profitable platform to develop for, and developers frequently go “iOS-first” as a result. Miniclip itself chooses to develop iOS-first — but according to Choudri, that’s “because of where our developers are today.”
A shift is occurring, he says: “The other thing we’re seeing as a developer — is in terms of revenue, we’re seeing Google Play catch up. I don’t think it’s as significantly lower as people think it is.”