Why Android is failing

By George Osborn on August 3rd, 2012

In December last year, Eric Schmidt, then head honcho at Google, hedged his bets on future success with his company’s Android platform. Batting away concerns over performance, he predicted that, within six months, the volume of users on Android would get developers shifting their focus from Apple’s iOS to the Linux-based platform.

Sitting here in August, nearly eight months later, it’s evident that hasn’t happened. In fact, according to recent sales results from the US, Schmidt’s hopes of market-conquering volumes have been dented, if not altogether dashed. In terms of handsets shipped, the company saw sales of Android-equipped smartphones dip by 4.3 per cent to 56.3 per cent overall.

Meanwhile, iOS saw a 10 per cent rise in users up to 33.2 per cent market share, as it grabbed ex-Android users and escapees from RIM’s sinking ship. This was achieved despite the uncertainty over the launch of the iPhone 5, coming solely off the back of iPhone 4S sales.

Why, therefore, has Android stalled? Part of it comes down to economic circumstances that have forced the price of the iPhone 4S down for consumers across the world. With the handset remaining highly desirable despite entering its victory lap, tariff operators across the world have raced to the bottom of the premium price range to drag mid-spending users up to more expensive tariffs.

This has definitely happened in the UK. 3, backed by Hutchison, dropped the price of an iPhone 4S contract with unlimited data, minutes and texts to £36 a month for two years. By making the move towards the higher end of the mass market, they forced competitors to move with them, thus opening the handset up to more users. And with the promises of unlimited data, this ensured that younger users with iMessage, WhatsApp or Skype could easily chat with their friends without the threat of a nasty bill.

So there certainly was an economic rationale behind the increase in iPhone market penetration. But, as anyone who isn’t an economist knows, finance is not the sole motivator of behaviour. In the smartphone market, as in much of the tech industry, comes down to aesthetics and design. The “my phone is shinier than yours” factor has almost certainly played a part in the move to iPhone as Apple’s handset ticks almost every box on that front.

Yet when we consider the myriad reasons for smartphone ownership, we end up focusing on a fairly pragmatic goal: that of long-term practicality. With consumers knowing they are likely to have a handset for two years, concerns about the durability of design, battery life and straight-out usability become important. That means what most consumers want is a reliable and stable user interface.

So operating systems, even without specialised end-user knowledge, become a vital component in the package. This, ultimately, is where Android lets itself down: the OS experience simply isn’t able to deliver as consistently good an experience as iOS to its entire user base.

Certainly, it has strengths. Its USP – that it is open – ensures its position as the most customisable platform out there. Gadgets and Widgets are at home on this platform like no other, with users actively encouraged to customise their handsets and install what they want, while the use of peripherals to shape user experience is actively encouraged.

Meanwhile, Google’s light touch approach to app regulation ensures that developing an Android app and getting it to market happens faster than on Apple’s iOS, which is restrictive and heavily policed by Apple. Furthermore, its Linux base ensures that it can be easily and widely distributed across multiple handsets, ensuring that an app goes far and wide in a short space of time.

But while these strengths bolster Android’s attractiveness to smaller, bedroom style indie developers, they do little to actively engage the users who plan to have an Android phone. In fact, the very openness of the platform significantly diminishes the chance of providing a user experience that will retain users in the long run.

Three reasons spring to mind. The first is the enormous fragmentation of the OS, both across different phones and between different iterations. Whilst it’s an accepted fact that an operating system will always move on and some phones will be left behind, the rate at which Android changes and the way it leaves many users behind ensures that the Android experience is inconsistent and often unsatisfying.

This can be seen in the figures. Despite the launch of the new 4.1 Jellybean OS last month, 60.3 per cent of Android users remain on the Gingerbread OS, which was last updated in September 2011. That means the majority of users remain out of the loop on the newest features and smoothest-running version of the OS. Apple, on the other hand, tends to drag along 80 to 90 per cent of its user base with each update, ensuring a unified experience across both handsets and tablets.

The lack of a unified user experience contributes to the second major problem with the Android OS: the difficulty in creating apps that work across the platform. Developing an app that produces a solid experience for iOS means testing on around 5 or 6 devices. Android, as well as having multiple variants of its OS in the market, runs on a staggering 1,363 different devices, according to app company OpenSignals.

This means, inevitably, that developers who do bring their apps to Android will fail to make apps that work for all the different processor strengths, screen resolutions and other variables. The problems with this are twofold.

Firstly, end users get frustrated when established apps like Temple Run and GTA III don’t run on their devices. Second, it frustrates developers who commit their resources to a platform with poor commercial returns ($0.24 per download vs iOS $1 per download according to Flurry in December 2011) – due to piracy rates of 90 per cent, in the instance of the popular Football Manager series.

And the problems with the app store and the fragmentation of the OS lead to the third and most important consideration: a general impression that Android is a low-end system for low-end purposes. With apps that work on few devices and new versions of the OS appearing within months out of the phone contract cycle, it’s easy to feel that your version of the OS is out of date and that you’ve been left behind in an update wilderness.

And, compared to iOS and Windows Phone, it’s probably the worst operating system to be left behind on. Not content with being home to the most piracy, it’s also home to the most fraud and malware. While iOS was recently hit by the Find & Call scandal, it has not had to deal with anything like the level of fraud found on Android. From Riga-based conmen using fake Angry Birds apps to nick £28,000 in cash to reports indicating that a third of Android apps have malware, Android is unquestionably a more dangerous platform to have in your pocket.

So, overall, Android delivers a pleasingly customisable but ultimately underwhelming user experience that feels like tat for the mass market rather than a product that shines. This stands in direct contrast to iOS, even though the iOS ecosystem is akin to a nanny state, telling you what you can and can’t do with your phone, as well as routinely keeping developers in the dark.

The thing is, to the uninitiated end user, with iOS you get apps that are fit for purpose, a fast and flowing user experience, a neat user interface and enough extras on top to keep your phone looking and feeling fantastic. For most users, that’s what matters: a secure, safe and highly functional experience that works for them until they come up for renewal.

And that is why users, who may have been on mid-priced tariffs, move from Android to iOS, because the latter, to most people, feels like an upgrade to the former.

What’s to be done to stop Android flagging? Google, to its credit, has recognised some of the problems outlined in this article and is working on solutions that will remedy the worst of them. With the Jelly Bean update, the company has acted to improve the performance of the OS, significantly tightening security checks to guard against piracy and malware as well as forcing everyone to pay via Google to ensure money isn’t siphoned off elsewhere.

The gap in sales might be closed by the end of the next quarter, with the help of higher-quality Android-based products. The Samsung Galaxy S3, which broke smartphone pre-order records this year, and the Nexus 7, an affordable but highly recommended alternative to the iPad, will close the gap easily and perhaps reverse the trend in Android’s favour again.

But concerns over Android remain in the long run. With the iPhone and iPad likely to dominate the high end, Google is probably committed to waging a price war further down the food chain. Yet, with the impending launch of Windows Phone 8, a genuine low price but high-quality competitor will emerge, offering developers a friendly OS to work with and giving users the seamless experience of the Nokia Lumia series.

Since the OS is being used by Samsung, HTC and other manufacturers from October onwards, Windows Phone’s current measly 4 per cent market share is likely to balloon as end users and developers turn to the platform after they’ve waited out the end of WP 7.

Much remains to be seen. If Google is going to stay ahead of the OS game, it is going have to demonstrate to users and developers that Android can be a best in class operating system, offering a more consistent experience across the board. It will need to show that monetising on the platform can reap genuine rewards for developers.

Otherwise, before long, its operating system won’t be the droid anyone is looking for.