Followers of this blog will have read quite a bit about Apple products for which we make no apologies. After all, Apple has been making most of the running in developing both the smartphone and the tablet computer as serious platforms for publisher content. Up to now, that is. Recent reports show Apple is facing some stiff competition from Google’s operating system, Android.
In the smartphone category, Android has been ‘surging’ since last year according to Wired. Last October, Neilsen reported that Android was the most popular operating system among people who had bought a smartphone in the previous six months, with Blackberry RIM and Apple iOS tied for second place. When it comes to tablets, Wired has quoted a Wall Street analyst as saying: “Long term, we believe Android could surpass the iPad in tablet market share”. Now Android looks to be winning the content battle as well.
Distimo’s report said that Google’s Android Market eclipsed Apple’s App Store for iPhone in terms of free applications. At current rates of growth, Google Android Market looks likely to beat Apple into second place for overall number of apps available later this year.
Those who dislike Apple’s ‘closed’ model and the tight control the company exerts may well be cheering at this news. Android is open source after all: isn’t it?
Well, up to a point. Some think that Android is becoming less and less open source, and for publishers this might not be bad news.
How open is Android?
We have become used to envisaging the future of mobile computing as a straight fight between a ‘closed’ system – Apple, and an ‘open’ one – Android. However many in the tech community have begun to question exactly how open Android is nowadays.
Compared to Apple it’s very open. Android is released under an open source licence and anyone with the right technical knowledge and tools can download the core code, modify it, compile new versions of it and give away or sell those versions. Unlike Apple, Google doesn’t control the hardware on which Android runs or which networks Android phones operate – that’s down to the OEM handset manufacturers and network carriers.
Neither does Google. Unlike Apple, Google make autocratic and seemingly arbitrary decisions about which third-party apps can appear on its app store. With the Android Marketplace, everything gets in (including malware). It’s even possible for developers to bypass Android Marketplace and get their apps onto phones directly. Android doesn’t even look the same on different handsets or hasn’t up to now.
With the release of Gingerbread (version 2.3 of Android) at the end of 2010, Google was felt to be exerting pressure to bring more consistency to their user interface. In fact Google was accused of wanting ‘an Apple-like level of control’ over the UI. The latest release, nicknamed ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’, converges the smartphone and tablet branches of its code, to bring greater product uniformity. This coupled with the release of Google TV firmly fixes the company’s sights on a multi-screen future.
While some may see this as creeping ‘apple-isation’ of the Android OS, others point out that all along Google has been less than entirely open with Android. Let me explain…
Developers don’t get to share what is happening with the software inbetween version releases as they do with Firefox, for instance. And Google has been known to take out cease-and-desist orders on people who mod Android in ways it does not like.
Only the core of Android is open source. Other components are closed, including the instant messenger client, email client, mapping application, YouTube client, calendar application, setup wizard, contacts syncing framework and, importantly, the app store. While Google might not control what apps can go on Android Marketplace, it does control which devices get to give access to the Marketplace: the first wave of cheap Android tablet devices, in particular were almost all barred from using it.
Some fairly big-hitting industry figures question whether Android is open source at all. Looking at Apple and considering that Safari and iOS are both open source at heart, the open/closed duality we began our blog with begins to look a lot less like the truth.
Good news for publishers?
Surely the Apple-ization of Android has to be a good thing for publishers? While Apple’s role as arbitrary content gatekeeper is galling in many ways; the consistent, seductive and convenient end-user experience offered by them has to be a good thing for those selling e-content?
If Android can manage to deliver a comparable level of user experience without Cupertino’s control-freakery to contend with, surely it will offer publishers the best of both worlds?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple.
Android might not be completely open but it is far from a closed system and will always be so: Google only controls the software. OEMs and carriers, in a crowded marketplace, will continue to demand the right to differentiate their brands by offering UI modifications and exclusive functionality and consequently Android will never be entirely uniform. This 3-way tension will continue to be a feature of Android that iOS does not partake in at all.
However, from a point of view that sees diversity as strength, many feel that Android offers a much stronger platform for innovation than Apple’s somewhat Stalinist approach. Android might well be more fragmented than iOS, but ultimately that may result in it becoming a more durable platform, since failure to innovate fastest in tech markets, is death. Google has a notional advantage here, partaking as it does in the resources of Android’s extended ecosystem, and being less dependent on its own internal capacity and leader/guru figure, Steve Jobs.
Ultimately, this becomes a political argument (with overtones of a religious one). Android and Apple are liable to be with us for some time and in the foreseeable future publishers are going to have to deal with and develop for both. At least Android might be easier to get to grips with.