Why Android Could Fail

Wednesday Nov 18th 2009 by Mike Elgan
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Google’s Android platform faces colossal challenges in all three of the factors that determine success in the handheld market.

Back in May, when everyone was hailing the coming age of the Palm Pre, I predicted -- correctly, it turns out -- that the Pre would fail.

With 20/20 hindsight, that prediction sounds non-controversial. But at the time it sounded crazy to many, and I got a lot of hate mail for it.

After all, the Pre was viewed as essentially an iPhone, but with a physical keyboard and a more sophisticated user interface. The reason most pundits got it wrong is that they made the classic mistake of ignoring both market segmentation and human nature. The fallacy that most observers fall into is the mistaken belief that good product = market success.

The gold standard for market success in the cell phone handset market is, of course, the Apple iPhone. In today's market, as I pointed out in my Palm Pre prediction, only three things count: brand appeal, simplicity and applications.

In all three of these measures, the iPhone earns an A+. Apple has a top brand, easiest-to-use phone and the most and best applications. As a result, the iPhone is steadily -- and predictably, I might add -- devouring the smart phone market with no sign of slowing down.

This is the problem competitors face with creating the elusive "iPhone killer." In order to beat the iPhone, a cell phone would have to at minimum equal the iPhone in two of these measures, and surpass it in the third. In other words, an iPhone Killer would have to, say, be associated with as good a brand as the Apple and iPhone brands, be every bit as simple to use as the iPhone, and have more applications.

See what a challenge this would be? How will any competitor achieve this?

Microsoft, for example, has a pretty good brand, with both Microsoft and Windows as part of its Windows Mobile platform branding. But Windows Mobile gets a C on user simplicity, and a D- on the apps experience. That's why Windows Mobile is a market loser, falling from 11.1 percent market share in the third quarter of last year, to 7.9% this year. (During that same period, Apple's iPhone rose from 2.8 percent share last year to 13.3 percent this year.)

The success of the Android-based cell phones is much harder to predict, because so much about future products -- and which companies will build them -- is unknown. But even without that information, Android has serious disadvantages. So far, Google is failing in two of the three measures: Brand appeal and simplicity. And the jury's still out on applications.

Specifically, here are the potential barriers to Google's Android success.

The Brand Problem

Google blew it by inventing the word "Android" to describe their platform. Google is a great brand, Android is a loser brand. The reason: it's not one that will usually be directly used by consumers to describe the phone itself. For example, all iPhone OS phones are iPhones. iPhone is the brand. Clear. Simple.

Android is the "platform," but phones will be sold under other brands. Google says that there are or will soon be at least 18 different phones running Android. Worse, different brand names have been contrived for the same phones running in different countries or versions.

Android is barely getting started, and already the platform is associated with the following phone brands: Xperia X10a, Eve, Eris, Desire, One, Streak, Calgary, Motus, Dragon, Liquid, A1, Moment, Behold, DROID, Milestone, Archos, CLIQ, DEXT, Spica, Galaxy Lite, i5700, Pulse, Mini i3, Hero, Tattoo, Galaxy, Magic, myTouch, 3G, Dream and G1.

Next Page: The Simplicity Problem

By the end of next year, there could be 50 or even 100 devices running on some version of the Android platform.

And because the Android platform is free and uncontrolled, it will be the platform of choice for bargain-basement, junk devices. The worse these phones are, the more they'll emphasize the Google and Android brands in their own marketing. They'll try to bask in the Google glow. But what they'll do is tarnish the reputation of the platform.

A technical person who doesn't know or care about marketing might look at all this and think, great! Look at all those phones. But this is a disaster for the platform because of a simple facet of human nature.

The Simplicity Problem

When confronted by brand confusion or complexity, consumers freeze.

Technical people, industry insiders and others casually dismiss this nugget of truth from behavioral psychology, even though it explains half the mysteries about why some consumer products succeed while others fail. The phenomenon was laid out beautifully by Barry Schwartz in his book, "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less."

Google's model of providing the platform, and enabling any hardware maker to do anything they want with it without Google's permission or even knowledge, sounds great. It's a recipe for innovation.

Unfortunately, innovation doesn't always lead to handset market success. People want easy, not innovative.

When the average consumer decides to buy a cell phone, he or she is confronted with a dizzying array of choices. Which of the several national carriers? Which of the dozens of wireless plans? Which of the hundreds of cell phone handsets?

Consumers are exhausted and confused by the choices. Then along comes Apple: "We're Apple. Here's our phone. Here's the plan. Here's the carrier. It's number-one. We have the most apps. Just choose iPhone, and you don't have to make any other decisions."

Apple wins because they offer clarity and simplicity. The Android platform offers the opposite: confusion and complexity. Which brings us to apps.

The App Problem

Google's approach also threatens to undermine even the App experience for users. The problem is that because of Android's Wild West approach to hardware development, there are now devices running three versions of the OS, a wide range of custom firmware and significant differences in things like screen resolution and the like.

It's already difficult, expensive and time consuming to develop on the Android platform. As a result, we can expect three bad outcomes: First, consumers will face uncertainty and confusion about which apps can successfully run on what devices. Second, the complexity, time and hassle of coping with multiple OS versions and many hardware variations provides a disincentive for many would-be developers to stick with it. And finally, providing real compatibility requires extra code, which could affect app performance.

Will Android fail? It's hard to say. Nobody knows if some company might come along and belt one out of the park with some spectacular product.

But this much we do know: Google faces colossal challenges in all three of the factors that determine success in the cell phone handset market: Branding, simplicity and apps. If Google does succeed, it won't be easy.

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