The Balkanization of Android
The Android operating system for smartphones is one of the most successful technologies ever created. Apple Inc. sparked the smartphone revolution, but Android spread it to the masses. The software backed by Google parent company Alphabet Inc. powers more than 85 percent of the roughly 1.5 billion new smartphones sold each year.
Yet for all its success, Android looks increasingly in danger of falling apart.
That's because the companies that teamed up to make Android a hit -- principally Google and Samsung Electronics Co. -- are increasingly working at cross purposes. Google has just started to sell its first smartphone that competes with its ostensible partner Samsung, and for now it has kept for itself crucial voice-assistant technology that makes the Google phones more appealing than those of other Android manufacturers.
Now Samsung plans to use its own digital assistant for smartphones in competition with Google. 1 Other makers of Android smartphone handsets, principally Chinese firms such as Xiaomi Corp., have also extricated themselves from parts of the Android system. Once successful Google hardware partners, including HTC Corp. and Lenovo Group Ltd., are struggling with their smartphone businesses and are no longer useful Android allies.
Coalitions only hold together if all the partners are successful and share common interests. That's no longer a given with Android.
Google started backing Android in the first place because it was worried Apple (and Microsoft, and the phone companies) could find ways to disadvantage or block Google's web search on smartphones. Android was Google's effort to build its own smartphone playground and ensure Google stayed relevant as more computing activities moved from PC web browsers to mobile gadgets.
That strategy panned out. But controlling the operating system no longer gives Google a guarantee to siphon and harness all the world's digital information. The more time people spend using Facebook, Snapchat or Siri on their phones -- even on Android phones -- the more data is being generating out of Google's reach. Wresting back some of that power and consumer information is a significant motivation behind Google's efforts to create smartphones that it designs and controls from the chips to the apps.
For their part, Samsung and other handset makers know they can no longer rely on Google for their mobile existence. Samsung agreed in October to buy Viv Labs, a startup working on a Siri-like voice technology. In China and India, local companies sell Android smartphones with local versions of app stores in place of Google Play. In some cases, it's possible to use Android smartphones without interacting much with Google. All these moves are signs of the fraying Android coalition. The coalition of the willing isn't willing anymore.
It isn't unusual for cracks to emerge in tech alliances. Partners Microsoft, Intel and personal computer manufacturers haven't always been on the same page about the Windows operating system -- a business that mirrors Android in many ways. At times, PC hardware makers felt as if Microsoft was getting the better end of the deal. While Microsoft got rich on Windows software, PC hardware makers were left to fight over single-digit percentage profit margins at best from making and selling Windows computers. In the Android alliance, Google makes the lion's share of the profits, too.
In short, it's hard to stay friends for long in the technology industry, as Google is finding out.
The Windows coalition has held through the turmoil, though Windows never branched far beyond personal computers and computer servers to other devices. The PC is now a fringe of computing, and Windows isn't even the heart of Microsoft anymore.
It's not clear how this all shakes out for Android and Google. In contrast to Windows, Android is moving far beyond the smartphone into powering thermostats, web streaming gadgets hooked up to televisions and virtual reality headsets. But if the coalition can't stay together, the big risk is Android turns out to be a crucial technology, but not an enduring one -- the laser disc player of computing.
Samsung has also developed its own smartphone operating system, Tizen, as an alternative to Android. But Tizen has never gone anywhere.
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Shira Ovide in New York at email@example.com
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