Android phones are taking over in the U.S. market, but troubles with the app market could slow down the pace.
Google's Android smartphone OS is starting to look like an unqualified success. Right now I'm seeing more Android smartphones arriving in the U.S. than any other platform. On Tuesday night, I went to the launch of five different models, all in Samsung's 1-GHz Galaxy S line.
The floodgates are truly open. Apple seems to be withstanding the flow, but Android and the iPhone are starting to wear the ground away under RIM. Palm, meanwhile, is clinging to a branch that HP is holding out from the bank of the rushing river. Microsoft isn't even in this metaphor.
One thing could really dry up consumers' enthusiasm for Android: a lack of great apps. I plowed through the Android Market on an HTC EVO 4G or Motorola Droid Xâ€"two of the most powerful phones available todayâ€"and saw very few apps that take full advantage of the devices' capabilities. (There were, however, a lot of little widgets and ringtone apps seemingly programmed by one guy in Romania.) Having a low barrier to entry is great, but a platform also needs a broad range of high-end, 3D games and rich media apps.
I was riveted by Jon Lech Johansen's critique of the Android Market this week. "Developers and users are getting fed up and it's time for Google to clean up the house," he says. Johansen's critique is especially relevant because unlike Apple-centric critics, such as John Gruber and Daniel Eran Dilger, Johansen has thrown his lot in with Android and has an interest in its success. Johansen currently runs DoubleTwist. Its media syncing software is the official option for T-Mobile's Android phones.
Expanding on Johansen's critique, I have my own complaints about the way Google is running its Market right now. Google needs to slow down its release of new versions of Android and instead focus on providing a great developer/consumer app experience, or its growth is going to slow. Here are some pain points:
Fix commerce. Google's number one problem right now is that it's not funneling money to developers. No money means there's no incentive to develop excellent, paid apps. Johansen points out several problems with Google's commerce strategy: you can't price the apps in enough currencies, sell in enough countries, or (by and large) use carrier billing or direct credit card sale. Far too few people have Google Checkout accounts. Apple's secret weapon is all of those credit card accounts that were already linked to iTunes by iPod owners, which made buying apps a one-click experience. Nobody uses Google Checkout. Google needs to integrate with an existing one-click systemâ€"either something from the carriers or Amazon'sâ€"and start paying developers money.
Improve discovery. There's no good way to browse and purchase apps in the Android Market from a PC, where a big screen and keyboard should make browsing much more enjoyable than on a phone. On phones, meanwhile, the Market's lists are often cluttered with spam or repetitive apps. Google needs to do a better job of bringing the best apps to the forefront while relegating dull, low-quality apps to the background.
Curate, but only a little bit. Johansen pointed out the embarrassing prevalence of copyright-violating apps in the Market. There's a lot of ripped-off Disney content, for instance. Recently, News Editor Mark Hachman wrote about the growing field of music piracy apps on Android. That makes the Market look out of control, scares off average consumers, and may even open Google to legal liability. Google shouldn't start cutting apps based on arbitrary criteria like Apple does, but if a product is illegal in its country of sale, it needs to go.
Reduce fragmentation. With 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.1, and now 2.2, there are too many versions of Android in the marketplace. Developers don't know what capabilities to target, and they can't rely on specific features being present. Google should adopt a carrot-and-stick approach to OEMs and carriers who insist upon sticking with old versions: Give more assistance with speedy upgrades but withdraw support from carriers who delay their upgrades too long. Also, in the "reduce fragmentation" zone, Google needs to come to terms with the reality of Android-powered tablets and figure out how to make the same apps work on them and Android phones. Yes, I know that's a tall order, but it's what Google needs to do to lead the market.
Improve the coding environment. Some of the fragmentation problem can be solved by holding developers' hands rather than OEMs' hands. Offer a coding environment that makes it very easy for apps to fall back from one version's capabilities to another's. Beyond that, Android uses a Java virtual machine to run third-party apps, and Java just isn't a very lovely environment for coding rich productivity apps and 3D games. Google is offering better APIs/JSRs recently, but maybe it needs to step back and start encouraging middleware, like Adobe's, for programming Android apps. (Middleware has its own performance-related problems, though.)
Google jumped one hurdle on the way to smartphone market dominance: it's getting Android phones into consumers' hands. Now it needs to focus on thrilling developers, because that will please consumers even more.
Do you think Android will get over the app hump? Let me know in the comments area below.