How Google Can Save Android From Certain Failure

Today’s debut of the T-Mobile G1 is the first public appearance of an almost fully-baked consumer "Googlephone" — a phone based on Google’s Android operating system.

There’s just one problem: There is no Googlephone*. And that’s something Google must fix, and fast, if it wants its mobile operating system to succeed.

Granted, Google’s Android operating system has a lot going for it. It’s supported by a developer-friendly company, it’s Java-based and it’s open-source.

However, it’s going to need a lot more than that if it’s going to succeed as a smartphone platform. And by "succeed," I mean "beat the iPhone."

The iPhone has seen tremendous success in the market thanks to Apple’s fanatic dedication to good user experience, its willingness (and ability) to strong-arm its carrier partners, and Apple’s easy-to-use App Store, which gives developers instant access to millions of iPhone and iPod Touch users worldwide. Some developers have already used the platform to make serious money, to the tune of $250,000 in just a couple of months.

But Apple keeps tight reins on its developers. It has a slow and seemingly arbitrary process for vetting App Store software, it shackles developers with a restrictive NDA, and it charges $99 just to get access to the developer’s kit.

It’s a sure bet that many developers, given the opportunity, would flock to a less restrictive environment. And with dozens of carriers and many handset manufacturers building Android-based phones, it looks like there might be a large market of Android phone users to sell to.

There’s just one problem: The carriers. A big part of the iPhone’s success is due to Apple’s clout, which enabled it, in effect, to tell AT&T to sit down and shut up about this or that feature requirement. Once other carriers saw the iPhone’s success in the United States, they wanted in on that action, so Apple was able to dictate terms globally, just as it had a year before in the U.S.

That’s a striking difference from the way carriers and phone manufacturers usually relate to each other. Carriers typically retain fanatic control over every aspect of the customer, from the menus on the phone to the applications that customers are permitted to download. Carrier feature requirements dictate the laundry-list of useless gewgaws that most phones sport. (Does anyone ever actually use the "calendar" app on a Nokia or Motorola phone?) And it’s that dysfunctional relationship that means most phones are so horrible to use: They’re doomed from the start by companies that care more about their own requirements than those of their customers.

That’s why I predict that Android will soon have as many different flavors as there are carriers. Some carriers will customize it so that their phones can’t install any applications other than the ones they authorize. Some will modify the operating system to work with one of their custom services or another. Some will no doubt cripple it, removing features that they consider threatening to their own businesses (like the ability to run VoIP apps).

And that’s their right. Because Android uses the Apache license,anyone is free to take it and customize it to their heart’s content,even if such customizations are appalling to the open source community.(There’s also no requirement that customizations be themselvesopen-sourced for the benefit of the whole Android community.)

In short order, "Android" will become meaningless to consumers, andmost carriers won’t evenadvertise the fact that their phones use the operating system. Instead,they’ll advertise their phones’ features, as they always have, andemphasize the benefits of those features to the users.

When that happens, Google might be happy to see that it’ssuccessfully kicked off a new operating system that will stimulate moremobile web use, ultimately driving some more people to Google.com. But itwill have ceded the handset war to Apple, whose more unified,easy-to-understand and consumer-friendly handset will triumph as abrand name and as a platform.

Mark my words: Apple has been so successful in defining thesmartphone market that you’ll soon hear people referring to non-Applesmartphones as "iphones," the same way people call tissues Kleenex,photocopies Xeroxes and bandages Band-aids. (Or the way they call websearching "googling," come to think of it.) That leverage will enable Apple to corner other markets, from mobile music to mobile navigation — and even, if they want to, mobile search.

There’s just one way Google can forestall this eventuality andtriumph in the handset market. The company needs to set up anaggressive "Googlephone" partners program.

It should designate a few core applications that all Googlephonesmust have, including Gmail, Google Calendar and other Google apps, suchas Google Maps. It should specify minimum requirements for processorcapabilities, memory and wireless data access. Perhaps GPS and Wi-Fisupport should be required, as well as a minimum 2 megapixelcameraphone (the better to interface with Picasa).

Then Google needs to set up a carrier/handset certification programto guarantee that phones in this program meet the requirements itspecifies. Those that qualify gain the right to be called"Googlephones," regardless of which carrier or handset manufacturerthey come from. Qualifying phones may sport a Googlephone logo on thephone and in advertisements about it.

The result: Googlephones will become a trusted, branded subset ofthe Android phone marketplace. No matter what other features a phonemay or may not have, consumers who buy a Googlephone from anymanufacturer will know that they have guaranteed access to their mail,calendar, contacts and Google Maps. And that guarantee — which isbased on the capabilities and benefits that consumers actually careabout — will help drive the growth of the mobile Google market.

It will also help extend the dominance of Google’s applications, by ensuring them a reliable and well-defined niche in the mobile universe.

If Google doesn’t do that, Android will quickly disappear into themorass of poorly-branded smartphone operating systems that consumersdon’t give a damn about, alongside Symbian, Windows Mobile and the Palm OS. And Google will have lost the mobile game.

Read more about the Googlephone:

* It’s true: There is no Googlephone. The official Google Mobile blog says only that the T-Mobile G1 comes ‘with Google’ (their quotes). And when Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced the Android project last year he said only that it is "more ambitious than any single ‘Google Phone.’"

Link: How Google Can Save Android From Certain Failure

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How Google Can Save Android From Certain Failure