“Android” and “open” go together like peanut butter and chocolate, but last year, avid Android followers were reminded that Android might be open, but Google apps for Android? Not so much. Workarounds have allowed use of those applications on phones, but Android’s future is not limited to phones. Manufacturers are testing, announcing, and even releasing Android netbooks, MIDs, and tablets. However, devices in this burgeoning Android market have yet to be certified as “with Google.” While there is no indication that phone sales are better or worse with or without that association, there are several reasons that being “with Google” could be an important distinction for other devices.
Tablets and netbooks are “connected” devices, but even with robust web applications, native device applications provide several advantages over their web-only counterparts. Features like offline use and cross-app-functionality are two major examples. Android users (or Google app users looking for Android) will expect access to native applications for Google Contacts, Calendar, Gmail, Voice, and Maps, but those native apps are are not part of the “open” Android.
STANDARD USER EXPERIENCE AND ACCESS TO ANDROID UPDATES
Android “fragmentation” comes in several forms, but differing OS versions is arguably the biggest problem for manufacturers, developers, and users. Devices with creative modifications to Android causes more work for manufacturers to keep up with the latest version of Android. Though other mobile platforms may also suffer this problem, Android adoption is vulnerable the longer these “old” operating systems hold onto significant market share. It is nice that Google provides open and updated access to such information (via Android Developers), but manufacturers need to be prepared to keep up with the releases. Developers may already be weary of having to support the “latest and greatest” as well as catering to the larger market segment of older Androids. Though Android 1.6 is still the dominant market release, “with Google” devices could be able to receive such updates in a more timely manner.
Really, it’s all about the apps. The Android Market is a legitimate marketplace and access to it is critical to the success of any Android device. Device-specific app stores will have a hard time competing with the established Android Market (if they can compete at all). Google and developers will need to work on how to segment applications based on max resolution, but that is not a new problem, even for Android. A soon-to-be-released non-Android tablet has a way to scale apps meant for smaller screens to match larger-screens – something for Google and developers to consider.
GOOGLE HAS THE FINAL SAY
The hurdle to getting Android “with Google” is Google. I expect that manufacturers are interested in selling “certified” devices, but none have yet to surface. The Google blog announcing Chrome OS acknowledges that “Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to netbooks,” which sounds reasonable. Unfortunately they confuse the tablet / netbook market (manufacturers and consumers alike) in the very next sentence, saying “Google Chrome OS …is being designed to power computers ranging from small netbooks to full-size desktop systems.”
Perhaps Google has a plan. Perhaps Google is quietly working with manufacturers. Perhaps the lines will soon be drawn – touch vs. non-touch, minimum / maximum processing power, or even external device support. Wherever they may be drawn, it is important to do so soon and let the netbook market and, more importantly, the tablet market get moving – “with Google.”