Time for Google to Take Control of Android

Photograph by Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

Google’s open approach to Android has certainly helped build the platform’s user base: Android powers more than half the world’s smartphones. Whether you love or hate Android, it’s difficult to argue that this level of adoption is anything less than a success. Android made its debut as a clunky operating system with few apps in October 2008 and has since improved and grown. Still, Google’s openness—allowing anyone to use the platform—might not be the best way to keep its lead.

Here’s a case in point: a recent public spat between AT&T and Google on software upgrades—one of the most annoying things about an open platform that essentially anyone can control. AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson wagged a finger at Google when he answered a question during an interview last week with this, as reported by 9to5Google: “Google determines what platform gets the newest releases and when. A lot of times, that’s a negotiated arrangement and that’s something we work at hard. We know that’s important to our customers. That’s kind of an ambiguous answer because I can’t give you a direct answer in this setting.”

As a daily Android user since January 2010, I’m flummoxed by Stephenson’s statement. Is he implying that Google’s Android system isn’t open for use by anyone as they see fit? If so, that’s news to me and likely many others. Apparently, it’s also news to Google, which released this statement: “Mr. Stephenson’s carefully worded quote caught our attention and frankly we don’t understand what he is referring to. Google does not have any agreements in place that require a negotiation before a handset launches. Google has always made the latest release of Android available as open source at source.android.com as soon as the first device based on it has launched. This way, we know the software runs error-free on hardware that has been accepted and approved by manufacturers, operators and regulatory agencies such as the [Federal Communications Commission]. We then release it to the world.”

History appears to back up the official Google statement, as hardware manufacturers and carriers have held up prior updates—or simply chosen not to offer them at all—over the past three years. In fact, Stephenson’s statement makes even less sense when you realize that handset makers are the ones that create Android builds for phones. Yes, carriers could have some say in part of the process, but probably very little. And the lone exceptions for Android updates, the ones pushed directly by Google, are the Nexus handsets that AT&T has never even sold.

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong on this particular issue, it illustrates a bigger problem for Android. Instead of reducing version fragmentation, getting updates out faster, and having consumers expect a consistent experience across all phones, the situation is really no better now than ever. I had hoped Android 4.0 would help, but the reality is that 6 months after it launched, few phones are running the new software—just 4.9 percent today, based on Google’s own data. Compare that with the 10 months it took for 75 percent of Android phones to run Android 2.0 or 2.1.

Bear in mind that while I use Android every day, I also use iOS on a daily basis. I occasionally use Windows Phone as well. My point here isn’t to suggest that Android is crap and people shouldn’t use it. But the best Android experience, in my opinion, is offered only by Google’s own Nexus devices.

Some outstanding Android phones offer faster processors, better cameras and customized software improvements that make them great handsets. But if you’re not using a Nexus, you’re at the mercy of your handset maker or carrier for updates. Those won’t likely be timely; Motorola Mobility explains why in this blog post. Plus, your carrier can always determine which features you can or can’t use on your handset; Google Wallet works great on my Galaxy Nexus, but the Verizon Wireless LTE version doesn’t support the service. The problem Android faces today is the one it has always faced but has never been able to tame: a lack of control.

It would be an audacious move, but for Google to rein in Android, it has to take back control of the platform. I’m not even sure it could, having open-sourced Android all this time. If it’s possible, now is the time. I hit on this last month in a GigaOM Pro report (subscription required), saying this: “For Google to truly address the problems Android faces, it will have to ‘own’ Android. By licensing the platform as it currently does, Google has limited control over what hardware makers do with Android. That could be part of the reason Google decided to acquire Motorola Mobility: It could offer Android devices that have unique functions or features, even as it uses Motorola’s patents to protect Android at large. Patents or not, Motorola could be the key to Google’s taking Android back.”

Using Motorola to begin taking back control of Android is fairly obvious, but the reasons to do so aren’t. Google has used its open approach to let Android proliferate like a virus, and that has led to hundreds of devices on networks all around the world. Think of these as little Google terminals where the company can gather information; Google keeps its finger on the pulse of mobile through these Android devices and sells mobile advertising based on that data. And for now, Google is recording the heartbeat of more than half of all smartphone owners. That may not continue forever.

Opinions will vary on this, but I think Android is at the top of its game right now—or at least it was recently; the exact timing isn’t important. What is important is to “go out on top” and take control before Android loses momentum. Right now, carriers and consumers want or need Android to exist. Why? Because not everyone wants an iPhone, regardless of the benefits iOS may bring—namely consistency, control, and stability, three words I wouldn’t equate with most Android phones.

If Google were to take control of Android now, it would be difficult for carriers and handset makers to rebel. Apple has no LTE handset yet, so operators are pushing Android devices over the iPhone in some cases. Hardware makers have few other choices to turn to as well. They could opt to embrace Microsoft’s Windows Phone, but the consumer demand isn’t there yet. LG (066570:KS) recently suggested it wouldn’t be building any Windows Phones until consumer demand warranted it. Let’s face it: Google has carriers and hardware makers in a position where it could dictate Android’s future use, at least for a little while.

Such a move would surely give hardware makers pause to work with Google in the future. But for the mobile market, I see little viable option. Would Samsung (005930:KS), HTC (2498:TT), LG, and others simply stop supporting Android? I don’t see how they could, given the slow uptake of Microsoft Windows Phone. Perhaps one of them could buy Research In Motion or license BlackBerry, but even that is, at best, a risky proposition. Tizen, another mobile platform formed from the old MeeGo project, is a further option, but it takes the same open-source approach as Android, so little would be gained by using it.

Without a doubt, Google’s open approach has helped it build the Android user base. It gave consumers and software developers a viable choice, compared with Apple’s walled garden, and it provided dozens of hardware makers a chance to stay in the smartphone game. But as Android’s “Wild West show”—or even the perception of it—continues, consumers are likely to turn their backs on Android over time. For that reason, Google should consider a move to control its mobile destiny directly. The longer it waits, the less likely it is that such a move will pay off.

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