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Knives and forks: why Google’s Android is being undermined from within

crossed forks

via Flickr © stevendepolo (CC BY 2.0)

That the knives are out for Google isn’t news. Like any highly successful disruptor, the Cookie Monster has collected enemies and rivals as readily as it’s collected personal data. But while those knives are always being sharpened it’s the forks that that may now doing some real damage.

For the first time, Google’s Android - the version plastered with Android’s apps such as Gmail and YouTube  -  has suffered a numbers setback. After years of growth - slow at first like most Google projects, then world-beating up until recently - ABI Research reports that certified Android smartphone shipments fell quarter-on-quarter for the first time in the last quarter of 2014, from 217 million in Q3 to 206 million in Q4.

True, Apple’s iPhone 6 was released into the wild last year and since nothing earth-shattering had appeared from Apple for a couple of generations there was a hardly-surprising surge in sales for iPhone. Apple’s IoS went from a paltry 39.3 million sales in  its previous quarter to a voluminous 74.5 million in Q4. Hardly surprising that Google Android’s top end suffered as a result.

But there was another factor. The growth of so called ‘forked Android’ - versions of the operating system derived independently from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). Forked versions of Android now account for around 20 per cent of the total and growing (though the numbers show that forked Android, too, took a slight numbers hit in Q4 from the iPhone).  

You’ll recall that Android was originally released as an ‘open source’ OS and the Google version is, strictly speaking, a fork of that (although we tend to think of the Google version as ‘standard’ Android). That meant that any vendor - if they felt big enough and technically strong enough - could at any time have ‘forked’ Android to get away from Google should they have wanted to. To do so, though, they would have had to forego Google’s ‘Play’ store amongst other things - developing your own store and stocking it with millions of apps (the key determinant of smartphone platform success) doesn’t come easy as Google itself found with its own Android fork when it was up against Apple - it took several years for Android to get up to speed on the apps front.

So while they often grumbled about being locked in to Google, most Android partners, most especially Samsung, more or less stayed with the program and supported Google’s Android, warts and all.

There were exceptions. Some vendors presented their own top level graphical user interface to enact some sort of differentiation - with indifferent results usually; and Amazon did a fork for its Smartphones (although this hasn’t been a raging success). But by and large Google’s Playstore has kept the raggedy show together.

But then there’s Xiaomi. The Chinese vendor’s huge success in China (and increasingly the rest of the world) is now denting Google. The software platform nicked Google’s Android and foked it. And for the phones themselves, Xiaomi plundered the Apple design department. The result is a set of budget-priced world-beating phones all feeding apps money back to Xiaomi.

So China isn’t a market that Google under it’s own steam could likely have tapped anyway, but the success of Xiaomi has given pause for thought to Google partners and emboldened its sworn enemies.

Android still powers more than eight out of ten of the world’s smartphones but that just makes open source Android a tempting option for rivals -  with the Playstore stocked full of apps why not do your own and get a good proportion of those apps in-store to set you going.

That’s easier said than done of course. While Xaiomi has managed to set up its own apps store in China (where of course apps and games are developed in Chinese and for the Chinese market) even it is using Google’s Playstore and apps outside of China because of the complexity and effort involved in replicating what Google has achieved.  The store is not just a bunch of files waiting to be downloaded - Google also handles all the app updates and the Apps themselves, as developed, tend to hook Google features such as Maps which means that devs must be convinced to develop and test new hooks if the app is to be successfully grafted (and used) on a non-Google app store.  All in all, it’s a logistics and developmental mountain, even for the deep-of-pocket.

For that reason the balance of advantage still usually comes down on Google’s side once the apps are considered - so the overall Google objective of having an ‘open’ platform upon which it can deploy its services in the mobile world is still being achieved. The important lock-in for Google Android is the play and apps store.

Then there are other forks which may be more disruptive in the longer term. Cyanogen, for instance, is developing its own version of Android which it is postioning to (in its own words) “take Android away from Google”.  On the Winston Churchill principle that you enemy’s enemy is your fond friend, Cyanogen has allegedly attracted the attention of Microsoft which has (allegedly again) participated in the latest Cyanogen funding round, which successfully raised $70 million.

Is Microsoft’s Nokia, which flirted with Android previously, looking at forked Android as an alternative to Windows? Or is Microsoft just making mischief?

One thing is certain: Google certainly didn’t lack confidence in its own abilities when it open-sourced its own operating system (the best way to get long term committment out of partners, but potentially a double-edged sword). So far it’s worked.

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