A Successful Failure

There has been a lot of talk about Android market share versus the rest of the industry — but these ‘analysts’ are just talking about Android versus the iPhone. It is all rather pointless, as we know that market share is not the end all, be all of business. Ferrari makes a pretty nice living off of a small market share, as does Apple with Macs. So does Leica, ditto Rolex. I am not going to waste your time with another post about mind share or about profit share.

None of that matters.

I have something more Apple fanboy-ish 1 to talk about: the eventual demise, the non-starter, the successful failure, of Android.

Successfully Failing

This is exactly what Wil Shipley was talking about in his recent post about farming versus mining. This passage by Shipley is what I mean when I say a company is ‘successfully failing’:

The stock market itself encourages this behavior: what’s important to the market is the potential growth of your sales, not your current sales, since the point of buying stock is to sell the stock to someone else later on, at a higher price.

In other words, not worrying about longevity of the company (or platform).

The stock market has screwed over the consumer and investor perception of what success really means. I think success means turning a nice profit — not looking like you could, at some point (in the future), possibly turn a profit. This is the deception that so many companies are pulling right now — companies like (to name a few): Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and that new free service that just launched. Which is a polar opposite of the real money that companies like: Microsoft, Apple, EA, Disney and others are making… today.

Android seems to be another platform (one in a long line) that is pulling this veil over peoples heads — except that they just aren’t fooling investors or tech pundits — they are fooling users and a few developers as well. What Google has done with Android is to quickly build it up as a market share leading (or soon to be leading, depending on who you ask) platform. They did this by leveraging:

  • minimal (if any) licensing fees to handset makers
  • opening up the software to allow handset makers and carriers to put crapware on the devices… I mean customize the devices
  • made it easy for developers to get into the marketplace 2
  • set a standard of free software in their store

All of these things combined have lead to good market share, oh yeah, almost forgot one: being on every major carrier — every.

Google lured developers with the promise of sales given a widespread and growing market. Google lured handset makers by giving them an iPhone-like OS, that they can cheaply and quickly use to compete with the iPhone. Google lured carriers with the same iPhone-like interface, but one that also allowed complete carrier hacking — I mean customization. They lure buyers because these devices look like an iPhone, are priced like an iPhone, but aren’t on a crappy network. 3

The reality is that to use Android the handset maker must:

  • make the handset
  • customize the OS to work with that handset
  • add in handset customizations

Then we go to the carrier, who:

  • buys the device
  • customizes the software, again

Then you get to the developers, who:

  • now have a different screen sizes on a multitude of devices
  • a different set of inputs 4
  • they “fix” their app to work with this device

Then we get to the user, who:

  • pays for all these “extra features”
  • buys a case 5
  • can’t get timely software updates
  • has on obsolete phone (and case) that the developers, carriers, and handset makers are no longer interested in supporting after 6 months and 20 new devices have hit the market
  • oh and, users are locked into a 2-year contract

That’s the Android way — what about that reads long term success to you? The entire model looks more like a market share grab with no real idea of how to sustain that growth than it does a growing and healthy platform.

Yet, Fred Wilson continues to whine about how developers should be developing for Android first — an argument he seems pleased to go down fighting with. He keeps saying this even though developers report similar findings as those released by MLB, according to Edible Apple:

Just a few weeks ago, Bowman stated that MLB app sales on Apple’s iOS are 5 times greater than on Android.

Yet it is Android that has the bigger market share.

That’s a big difference, one that surely will perk up any mobile developers ears. So why on earth would you develop for Android first — that’s akin to trying to become a millionaire by donating millions to charity first.

It doesn’t work.

“Hey become a mobile app developer and start with Android, it will pay for the Top Ramen you can eat for the next 6 months you spend developing for iOS. Then the money you make from iOS will pay for the Filet Mignon you eat while you try to keep up with new Android device screen sizes.” Sounds fun.

Except that it isn’t and as Marco Arment so succinctly put it:

But, I digress. We’re talking about Android… which has terrible development economics hindered by severe fragmentation and poor payment integration, and is not generally used by most of the influential people needed to spread the word on new services.

And that’s the key to this whole successful failure. How attractive is a mobile platform to both users and carriers 6 if there are no apps worth a damn? Truly, there are very few apps worth owning (free or otherwise) on Android — yet I own hundreds of iOS apps, most of which are damned good and the worst of which would be amazing compared to the best Android has to offer.

This isn’t an argument about the quality of iOS versus Android, or the idea of “open” or closed systems. This is an argument that is basically saying: Android is pulling a fast one on just about everyone because while they have apps, they don’t really have apps.

If Android can’t get happier users, then there is no Android future. That can’t happen, until Android starts getting quality developers. Which in turn can’t happen until Android can figure out how to make the time and effort worth a good developers time. Which in turn won’t happen until Android figures out what the hell it is trying to do longterm.

Android isn’t a farmer (to use Shipley’s analogy), yet they aren’t quite a miner either — and that’s a problem. Google isn’t looking for a quick payout from Android — they want users to stay with Google services. Yet they aren’t performing the nurturing actions one needs to take to build a real platform. Android seems an awful lot like Color, but I digress.

Without good, dedicated developers you can’t have the ecosystem that is making iOS a wild success among developers and users. MG Siegler reports:

I’ve talked with hundreds of developers over the past few years on this very topic. The common refrain: nearly all of them talk about what a headache Android is to develop for when compared to the iPhone — both in terms of work put in and rewards gotten back.

Craig Grannell sums it up even better:

Devs go where the money is—it’s really that simple.

It is completely plausible that Android could exist for years to come and that they will continue to be a market leader. There is, however, a reason that Linux has never taken off for “normal” computer users — while Windows and Mac OS has done quite well — Linux is just not user friendly. There is a market for Android, but it is the same market of users that prefer the command line to the GUI — that is: users that think its neat to dial via the command prompt rather than a keypad or address book interface. I am saying — hardcore nerds.

Jon-Erik Storm weighed in on the matter wondering why so many people think there will only be one platform left standing:

That’s your evidence? Really? I can come up with three counterexamples. One, gaming consoles. There are three: XBox, Playstation, and Wii. There has almost always been more than one important gaming console. Two, there are several web browsers that people use. If IE were still the only one, standards like HTML5 and CSS wouldn’t matter. Three, is Facebook really the only social platform? What is Twitter then? Maybe iTunes would have been a better example, eh? And as for PCs, Apple seems content with it being the #1 laptop and #2 PC maker with its approximately 8% market share, but yet reaping more profits. But the point is these examples are unscientific and don’t explain why technology platforms stabilize that way (if they do) and why that will apply to smart phones.

Agreed, and then some. The thing is I don’t think there will only be one platform left standing, but I do think that of the current platforms on the market, only iOS will still be a strong competitor in 3-5 years time — Android will either be dead, rebooted, or of little significance — do you think for one minute Nokia, HTC, Samsung, Sony-Ericsson aren’t working on a better OS?

People assume that because Android has captured a larger market share, that Apple can’t catch up — I am saying that they can and will catch up — but that it doesn’t matter. We just got the iPhone on Verizon in the U.S. and make no mistake that it will soon come to ever major carrier — world wide. That’s the plan, it’s been the plan all along. Apple chose the slow roll-out approach, the conservative approach, and they are reaping the benefits in the form of cold hard cash. Success is not market share or mindshare — success is profits.

What people are reluctant to write is that while Android is selling well — it is still a poor overall user experience. This is yet another factor of Android’s model that is actually detrimental to the platform. This is akin to the bargain basement PCs you can buy — sure they run Windows, but they have cheap motherboards that lock up and not enough RAM slots to make the computer useable.

Only in phones it is not the motherboard or RAM slots that users care about — it is the battery life. Here again Android is failing miserably. In part you should pass some of the blame to Google for not making a more energy efficient OS, but most of the blame should fall on hardware manufacturers for not providing energy efficient hardware components and picking and choosing new technologies (like 4G) wisely.

The last thing a user wants out of their brand new Android phone is to be able to use it for only 4.5 hours.

So the very “open” nature of Android causes two problems for the long term viability of the platform: user experience and developer experience. The user is suffering because they can’t get a good hardware/software solution that rivals the battery life and overall stability of something like iOS’ platform — this is something that Google has little control over. Even if Google were to make their OS a better user interface that iOS — the handsets would still be (for the most part) hit and miss — that’s not acceptable to users. 7

Glimmer of Hope

Amazon.

Amazon knows how to sell stuff — specifically they know how to sell digital goods. Amazon has their own app store for Android, and I am not alone in thinking this may be, but a ray of light shining through the darkness. It is an interesting thought, Google could power the Android OS and Search/Contacts/Ads, HTC builds the handsets, and Amazon sells the content to the users — all the while each of those are battling with carriers for some semblance of control (or more likely to get the carriers to chill out on adding “features”).

That, I guess, is the true upside of the “open” platform — even with handset makers and OS developers screwing the pooch, a third party can interject and completely save the platform.

Question then becomes: can Amazon save Android, from itself?

  1. I mention this to save both of us some emails.
  2. Ahem, no Apple approval process.
  3. By some people’s perceived estimations — except those poor bastards in SF, where AT&T hates you.
  4. Hardware keyboards, buttons and so on
  5. I have been told that it can be hard to find a case for any given Android phone. Personally I have seen a lot of Android users with cases, but if it is hard to find one — that’s just another negative.
  6. They need to be able to advertise that their devices can compete with the iPhone.
  7. Point of reference: Ford Pinto, Yugos, Pre-2000 Jaguars, eMachines, any Palm Treo after the 650, Blackberry Storm, Windows Mobile 6.5, etc.
Originally posted for members on: April 5, 2011
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