Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Android’s beauty is skin deep, but cracks have started to show

The Android operating system has never really hit the mainstream the way its prettier, slicker and more popular iOS cousin has. Apple’s success is down to its ability to produce industry leading software designed specifically for outrageously-stunning hardware. As a result, Apple’s products are both immediately identifiable and intuitive as the mobile operating system works in perfect harmony with the hardware. In contrast, it is Android’s open philosophy which has meant that it has failed to offer consumers both a uniform software and hardware experience. Unlike Apple which runs a tight ship and is in control of every aspect of its ecosystem, Android promotes openness. Openness in who can use the software and openness as to how that software is then tweeked and applied to a manufacturer's hardware. Consequently, it has never been easy for the average consumer to be able to identify or use an Android phone.

Any manufacturer who decides to use the Android operating system as the basis for a handset is allowed to pretty much do what ever they want to it before bringing it to market. This allows them to differentiate what is ostensibly a very similar product to what their competitors are offering. The adaptation of the operating system is known as skinning, and is best explained with the following analogy: Imagine that Android is a delicious sponge cake made by Google HQ and delivered for free to all the bakers that ask for it. Although all the bakers have a truly delicious cake, they are all selling the same product and will thus struggle to pull customers away from neighbouring bakeries. In order to generate business, each baker decides to make their cakes look unique by adding their own style of icings and toppings. Within a few days consumers suddenly have a choice of loads of different cakes, which although taste the same, look completely different. This is precisely what happened with the Android platform, as handset manufacturers flooded the market with their own tweeked versions of Android, leaving consumers without a clear understanding of what Android actually was.

Now you may rightly  be thinking “who cares if anyone knows what cake they are eating? After all, its all the same!” Well this is partly true. The analogy stays pretty clear-cut when Google HQ only make one type of cake. What happens if Google decides to improve their recipe and make a newer, bigger and yummier cake? When this happens the bakers experience mixed emotions. On one hand they are getting an even better cake, but on the other hand, all of the tools that they used to make the old cake special have become obsolete, as the new cake requires different equipment. As a result, they need to invest in new tools which takes time and costs money, whilst simultaneously, word on the street is that there is a new cake in town and it is all that anyone wants. All of a sudden, you have a street full of bakeries where some have rushed out their new half-finished cakes to meet demand, whilst others have taken so long that by the time they are ready, Google HQ has already released a new one! When this happens you get fragmentation. This is what has happened in the past few years, as handset manufacturers have been unable to effectively keep up with newer versions of Android. Consequently, consumers do not benefit from a uniform user experience or the most up to date software. This is particularly problematic for the Apps that run on Android as developers have had no clue how each iteration of the software would affect their App, as sometimes Apps that used to work on one version of Android, would not work the same on a newer version. Whilst Apps that run perfectly on a 3.5 inch screen may not scale up well to a 4 inch screen. In contrast, Apple provide developers with a consistent platform for which to develop Apps, and that is why in general their Apps are cleaner, prettier and follow a more consistent design.

So what now? Google has recently taken a new direction with its Android operating system, one that will please consumers but anger manufacturers. Google’s newest version of Android is Ice Cream Sandwich (note that all versions are named after a dessert) and is the company’s prettiest and most feature-filled version to date. What this means is bakers are being delivered a cake that is pretty much as tasty as can be, and there is little they can add to make customers buy their own specially-designed cakes. In turn, customers may choose to buy their cakes straight from Google HQ instead, as this way they are guaranteed the tastiest cakes as soon as they arrive. What this means for the manufacturer, is that the market has become significantly more competitive as demand for their skins will continue to decrease as Google’s natural version of Android slowly becomes the first choice for Android fans. In turn users will get a consistent experience and Android will for the first time have its own identifiable look, feel and touch.