Google vs. Android Part V

When I began the series of posts on Google vs. Android I put forward some questions about the business logic of Google becoming an operating system supplier, especially as that role can be seen as being counter-productive to Google’s strategy.

I noted three strategy costs associated with a zero priced systems software bundle.

  1. A opportunity cost with other platform vendors, namely Apple who might retaliate against Google’s core business.
  2. Versions of the software being usurped and modified to provide distribution to Google’s competitors.
  3. Damage to Google’s brand and positioning and negotiating power in relation with other members of their value chain.

More fundamentally, Google-as-systems-software is asymmetric to Google-as-cloud-software and contradicts the value proposition that Google enables value in the web not in accessing the web. Android appears to be a nod in the direction that systems software still matters.

In my numerous posts on the need for integrated development in the era of mobile computing, I also criticized any device vendor that chose to rely on a software stack from an external supplier as foolish. I claimed that they would end up creating uncompetitive products. I thus labeled Google’s pursuit of them as ultimately futile.

More than a year has passed since I began this critique of Android. It seemed quixotic as Android volumes exploded and a mad rush to the platform spun it into becoming the biggest mobile platform by units.

However those costs did not go away. As the platform grew, they compounded. At first I wondered whether Google management was seriously considering the cost or whether it was giddy with the semblance of success.

Well, finally, it seems that Google management has begun to acknowledge that these costs exist. In a recent Bloomberg story there are many claims that Google is reversing many of the operating principles of Android. Namely:

  • Restrictions on who gets what version of software when
  • Restrictions on what changes can be made to the software
  • Requirements for approval for source code changes

These changes, if feasible, will affect the ecosystem dramatically. It will also reduce the second type of cost associated with the platform (the cost of enabling competitors.)

Good news for Google then.

There are still the other problems (disconnect from business model, loss of goodwill, damage to negotiating power). But there is actually a more sinister new problem brought about with the new crackdown: Android will no longer be disruptive.

I also wrote a few posts (e.g. What has Android done for Apple?) where I claimed that Android has the power to accelerate smartphone adoption, especially in the “Wild East.” The power of Android was with the little vendors–the ZTE and Huaweis of the world. They could finally make smartphones cheaply–almost as cheaply as voice phones–and not have to negotiate licenses and pay for software IP.

It would be these smaller “unbranded” vendors that would really disrupt and, with them, Android would become ubiquitous for the billions of mobile broadband non-consumers.

However, with the new policies, it’s much harder for this to happen. Smaller vendors will look at the new hoops they have to jump through and probably say “no thanks.” In a beauty contest, they don’t look so good next to the big brands.

They may turn to homebrewed versions of Linux or new forked Androids. This redefinition of openness will essentially remove Google from the disruptive trajectory of mobile computing.

So we’re back to the old question: Google vs. Android, who wins? If Android still has hidden costs to Google and, with its sheep’s clothing cast aside, no longer offers significant distribution to the low end then how will Google benefit? The answer that there will be additional ad revenue does not cut it. That revenue would have come from placement deals with other incumbent platforms (just like Google manages to compete on PCs without having to provide its own OS).

As Google figures this out, its licensees are at the mercy of the ensuing decision. Good luck with that.