It's Google's world and handset makers just live in it


When the Motorola Droid launched this month everyone was amazed that a company so down on its luck was able to put together a well-designed phone running a powerful, “brand new” OS. The whole package – hardware, software, and marketing – seemed flawless. In fact, phones running Android 1.5 now look hopelessly outdated and with 2.0’s gesture, CDMA, and search support you’d wonder why handset manufacturers like HTC, LG, Kyocera, and Samsung are using 1.5 at all.

The reasons have more to do with Google than any decision on the carriers’ part. In fact, according to a source close to the handset business, Google’s Android team directly assisted Motorola and Verizon in building the Droid’s software from the ground up and is currently assisting another, unknown, handset maker in Korea to create a finely-tuned hardware and software combination. Most important, however, is that this is sort of assistance most manufacturers do not receive and, in the end, they are dinged for running an “older” version of Android.

These two bits of information – that Google assists certain companies in making specialized hardware and software and that Google is now helping another manufacturer to the detriment of others – sounds like sour grapes. However, the original vision for Android (as it was understood by lay users like myself) was an open, free OS available to multiple manufacturers and carriers. This preferential treatment is an anathema to that thought. This is akin to Linus Torvalds building a special version of Linux just for a commercial partner and refusing to release it until that partner has milked its value.

While it is clear that some manufacturers like HTC are keeping a stiff upper lip and running their special special UIs over 1.5, reviewers consistently ding manufacturers for running 1.5 while the Droid is given a pass.

And 2.0 matters. We asked Ross Rubin from the NPD Group about his thoughts on 2.0 and got back a half a book:

Android 2.0 brings refinement and more integration to the operating system, Examples include support for Microsoft Exchange and Facebook, which are the digital contact centers of many people’s professional and social lives. It also brings a revamped and much faster browser, albeit one that Google isn’t yet deriving from Chrome. The other big application improvement is Google Navigation, which it has introduced as a free service on top of Maps. Many carriers, including Verizon, charge for such functionality in other devices. Google is aggressively driving a major update while Microsoft is between major revisions of Windows Mobile.

We asked him why he thought Motorola got 2.0 early. He wrote:

As to why it debuted on a Motorola device, there could be several reasons. Verizon’s subscriber strength and more direct competition with AT&T and the iPhone may have led it to push for Android 2.0 to be more competitive. Or it could be simple product development timetables. Moving forward, HTC will want to put its Sense user experience on top of Android 2.0, which requires development time. Google wants a healthy Android ecosystem and a competitive Motorola contributes to that.

While this desire is absolutely understandable on Google’s part, there is a method to this madness. Google releases major updates on one handset and one handset alone. These updates are then pushed out to other android partners. Case in point:

  • 1.0 went to the HTC G1
  • 1.5 went to the HTC Hero
  • 2.0 went to Motorola

In short, they offer exclusivity to a certain partner in exchange to unfettered access to the design process which, in Motorola’s case, was gravely needed.

Why is there no outcry? Handset manufacturers are deathly afraid of Google. They worry that they will be cut out of the upgrade process and lose access to Google’s Android team.

What needs to be done? In the interest of fairness, all updates should roll out to the general ecosystem before heading to any one carrier. Sadly, this hippie attitude is no good for Google’s business and by creating flagship devices featuring their latest and greatest they ensure forward momentum for the platform. Fairness, it seems, stops at the grade school sandbox.

Again, you can take this as a complaint or a call to action. Android is an excellent platform but Google’s tendency towards “flagship” phones is detrimental to the general ecosystem, especially once the OS falls in along with RIM and Apple as a preeminent smartphone platform.