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Android development, can the breakneck pace continue?

August 3, 2010

I've written before about Google's strategy regarding Android but there seems to be a side effect to this strategy I hadn't anticipated: the blistering speed with which they are innovating their core platform. The number of Android releases in such a short period of time, and the quality improvements in each release, has been nothing short of amazing. I had assumed iPhone experience parity would take much more time to achieve.

droid.png Google's free (both as in speech and as in beer) approach has allowed them the latitude to focus completely on the core of their platform, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Since they have an odd upper-hand (handset makers really have no other choice) Google has almost completely ignored their needs and requirements. This has left handset makers (and customers) somewhat in the lurch, trying to keep up with the pace.

Android handset customers seem resigned to the fact that when they buy the latest and greatest phone, two months later something newer, shinier, and faster will be available. An interesting part of this approach is that since support is left almost completely to the phone makers, failures in the handset experience (platform fragmentation, slow speed of Android updates, etc...) seem to be blamed primarily on the hardware makers and carriers and not Google. Not being directly coupled to the market gives Google tremendous freedom to continue on their development trajectory.

I think this intentional rocket-ship paced speed of development is not sustainable. I predict that the handset makers (and customers) will begin to complain, and that the dreaded Android fragmentation problems will finally start to appear. The main problem won't be between different capabilities among handsets (although that will be a problem), but by the fact that there will be a dozen different Android versions with different capabilities all in the market simultaneously.

I think Google's strategy is to bring the Android experience close to the iPhone's (it some ways it's already there or superior) and then have the pace of development plateau. Not because Google won't be capable of innovating at the same rate, but because market realities will inevitably begin to intrude into the process.

I think several things will conspire to slow down the rate of new versions. I predict Google will have to shift some resources to testing and compliance, creating some form of Google 'certified Android compatible' testing lab not unlike what Microsoft had to do with Windows. Handset makers will begin to resist the current pace of innovation by introducing new phones with versions of Android other than the latest. Carriers will continue to drag their feet updating their phones to the absolute latest Android. Unless the way handset makers and carriers do business fundamentally changes I think they will be unwilling to bear the cost of supporting and testing so many different versions of the platform. They will demand some 'breathing room' to allow their investment in the current version to pay off before moving to the next.

Another possibility is that Google will continue to innovate along the same curve and intentionally not care about the business realities of their hardware and network partners. Since Google primarily wants the ad revenue from Android on mobiles, maybe they will take a hands off approach and let the handset makers figure out how to make their business models conform to the new realities of Android. The only problem with that is the overall mobile phone experience could be compromised. If there's one thing the iPhone still has going for it is it's integrated experience.