Who is Android’s Customer?

This is a question that has been swirling around my head for the past few months. Ever since I played with Android a year ago I’ve always been perplexed as to who Google envisions is Android’s customer. The tricky part about this question is Google has many “customers” of Android and that worries me.

Google has been courting device manufacturers for more than 18 months, extolling the virtues of an advanced smartphone OS that is free, open, and is not iPhone. Part of the appeal to many manufacturers is that they can customize it any way they see fit, however the problem with this approach is these manufacturers have already proven they are terrible at software, ala the need for Google to do it for them in the first place! Device manufacturers suck at software. Not only do these guys make strange customizations, their choice of hardware and drivers lead to very buggy devices. Then, because they customized Android and are bad at software, when Google releases a new version of Android they can take months to get their act together and make sure their device will work with the new build. This is the first chink in the Android armor.

Google also must work with carriers. Notorious for draconian control of their networks and the devices they carry, they have been slow to join team Android. They have seen the crippling effect iPhone had on AT&T’s network and they worry about the immense strain these data hungry customers will place on their network, but they have finally acquiesced. They simply could not keep ceding the market to Apple and AT&T. But carriers being carriers, they too want to leave their mark on everything they sell. They load up Android phones with their own media apps, partner’s apps, and other bullshit that is generally poorly designed and useless. These guys also have a say in controlling the speed at which OS updates will be pushed, since all OS updates are OTA (over the air). T-Mobile has been slow to update G-1 owner’s phones to the latest and greatest versions of Android, much to the dismay of T-Mobile customers. Google needs carriers to support Android, and they have been soft with them, allowing them to do things at their own pace. This is bad for consumers. Chink two.

Google must also convince developers to build apps. Apple has a massive head start, that is for sure, and as a developer it is very hard to spend cycles developing for a platform that is still quite buggy, that is fragmented across devices, and has an install base a fraction the size of the iPhone/iPod Touch does. Some developers are excited by the unfettered access they have to the device, however most of these apps are more science experiment than useful consumer app. Comparing some of the most popular apps that are on both iPhone and Android there is little comparison. The iPhone apps are smoother, more polished, and less buggy. This is what consumers care about, not root access. Google needs to work hard to build better tools for developers, document the OS better and provide stronger examples of how to develop world class Android apps. If you were to ask a developer thinking of building a mobile app which platform they are going to support first, my guess is Android will not be their first pick. Chink three.

All of the previous customers pale in comparison to end users. This is where I believe Google is most confused. When the G-1 came out it was positioned as an alternative to iPhone. An alternative. That sucks. It was not leaps and bounds better, just similar in some areas, better in few, and worse in most. Now I say worse in most with the filter of average internet users as the customer. Not tech geeks, valley peeps, or business users, but average internet consumers. People who buy things on Amazon every once in a while, who watch YouTube when they get links from friends and co-workers, people who have most likely owned an iPod, but not a Mac. I think Google wants these people to buy Android phones, but they have made so many design decisions that preference the hardcore geek over the average user that it is scary. Installing apps is a scary process, with alert screens practically suggesting you don’t install the app, menus within menus, notifications overflowing, and an on-boarding process that is laden with text explanation (a sign of un-intuitive design). Android has gotten a bit better since launch, but it still feels like a mini computer, rather than a sleek intuitive device. I have used the HTC Hero, the Droid and the Nexus One, and none of them really make me want to use them more. Chink four.

I realize this all sounds like terrible news for Google and that I am proclaiming the death of Android. That is not my intention. My concern for Android is that it is confused, it has to serve multiple masters and it won’t be able to serve them all while still creating an OS and end user experience people love. I think many Android users are actively choosing to not buy an iPhone. This is not a position of strength, and most consumers are not really looking for multi-tasking, or root access to their device, or the ability to hack their phone. Apple is dominating because they have created an experience with iPhone that people love and seek out. As Apple expands to other carriers in the US it will be even more clear the massively better product they have for consumers. Google really needs to focus on building out the user experience so that average users can pickup the phone and don’t want to put it down. This will require Google being tougher with device manufacturers and carriers, and more investment in the UI of Android to ensure the experience for consumers is great.  I am waiting for that Android. I hope it comes soon.