Yesterday, Samsung and Google announced an October 10th event, probably to unveil a long-rumored new Nexus phone running the new version of Android. Today, that new Android version was shakily demoed. Being a huge Android fan I follow this intently. I love Android because it’s so open that Amazon can go ahead and build something entirely different with it. Living in Gmail and Google Calendar, I love that everything syncs headache-free when I sign in to my phone. The Gmail app, specifically, is what makes Android my favorite dish among an increasingly diverse mobile marketplace. But despite my love for Android, I think Android’s next release, “Ice Cream Sandwich”, will be a make or break release for Google.
Make or break? Really? Well, make or break for the Google curated version of Android, yes. Obviously the Linux core is not going to disappear, but Android is at a crossroads. One path sees Android eventually showing a return on investment for Google, the other does not.
I like to pretend I understand the broken windows theory more thoroughly than I actually do, so I often invoke it outside of its criminological roots. The gist of the theory is that if you walk past an abandoned building with a couple of broken windows, there’s a greater chance that you would reach for a rock and break one of the remaining windows, than had the building manager made sure to repair the broken windows before you got there. Evil you!
Android is under fire from all directions. Apple vehemently sues HTC and Samsung for stealing their look and feel, Microsoft is attacking for underlying Linux patents they claim to have, and Oracle arguably has the upper hand in one high-profile lawsuit. If Android was a fortress in a desert, it would be under siege from all directions, and at some point the supplies will run out. Google appears unfazed by the attacks but I bet it’s getting to them. Having recently bolstered their patent war chest with the purchase of Motorola, Google is better positioned to fend off the lawsuits. Heck, they might even turn around Motorola and have the company produce delicious, Google-curated Android devices. But by the time this happens, a little year from now, it may already be too late. Right now, Android has a lot of broken windows.
The attacks against Android are reaching the public ear. “Google’s copying Apple”, “Android isn’t really open”, “Android users don’t buy apps”. It doesn’t even matter whether these stories are true or not — if they persist, they’re likely to make the customer walking into a Verizon store skip the Android phone and pick the platform he thinks is “going to be around”. (Or he’ll buy anything, but that’s not a business model.)
That’s a grim future which sees Android falter. But fortunately that’s just one potential outcome. Android still has a disruptive business model: it’s a free operating system with free top-shelf GPS navigation, and it gets users to use Google apps so there’s a halo effect. Now all Google needs is a decisive victory. They need a phone that just looks great, has a UI that’s responsive, fluid and extremely delightful to use. And Google needs this phone to sell like ice cream. Sandwiches.
I would assume Google knows this, and that it’s why they hired Matias Duarte to up the ante on the UI design. The Nexus S is a gorgeous device, all black like the night without the stars, so clearly Samsung can create beautiful hardware when they put their minds to it, wink wink. If the combination (which may be revealed October 10th) is both user-friendly, snappy and delightful, it might just sell like those aforementioned treats. This’ll inspire HTC and Samsung to stick with Android. It’ll further Androids reach, ensuring a larger portfolio of apps. It might even make an Android tablet a value proposition. Put simply, if Google can rally the forces behind a decisive platform release and instill renewed motivation in its partners, these partners might continue their legal fights with fresh energy as opposed to settle and pick other platforms.
On the other hand, if Ice Cream Sandwich is not the watershed release Google needs, the platform might slowly wither away. As stuffed as Googles pockets are, they’re not going to keep throwing money at Android with no return on investment in sight. There’s no sense in being the number 1 smartphone platform if it’s not making you money. That would be a Pyrrhic victory.