Trials and Tribulations of Android: OEM and Dev's concerned about committing to Android

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Google’s Android is the best bet for companies trying to stay competitive with Apple. But the open OS has its share of pitfalls.

A lot of people at PC and consumer electronics companies tell me about the problems and opportunities they see for new products. One challenge all companies face at the moment is the amazing impact and growth Apple is experiencing with its iPhone and iPad. It puts all other companies in a difficult position.

A company must take Apple into consideration when creating new products in those spaces. Apple’s products have become the gold standard, and if the competition wants to stay in the game, they have to create something equal or better–and as companies have told me, even with great products, they still have to undercut Apple’s pricing to get the public to take notice.

Creating sleek and competitive hardware devices is quite feasible for these companies, but the integration of the OS and application ecosystem causes headaches. First, they have to choose an operating system they think will have the most public demand, then they have to work with the software vendor to make sure it works really well on their device.

At present, there are at least five viable non-Apple operating systems. These days, however, most companies seem to be gravitating toward Android and it steadily growing app selection. Google’s mobile operating system is a sold, PC-like OS with a marketplace featuring more than 50,000 apps. And while a slew of competitors have adopted Android, companies can differentiate their products through innovative and interesting hardware designs.

However, I got a couple of calls from OEMs who are concerned about committing to Android, thanks to some new research that has recently come to light. The issue reflects an age-old battle between open (Android) and closed (Apple) operating systems. Apple gets knocked for its tight control over its App Store, but there is a method to the company’s perceived madness. At the OS level, keeping things restrictive minimizes the ability for third-party programs to crash the OS and cause other system-level conflicts. At the app level, it keeps out programs that could contain malware, viruses, and illegal or adult content.

Google’s approach, on the other hand, means that just about anything can enter the Android ecosystem. The company doesn’t want to stifle innovation and wants as many apps in the Android Market as possible. But this open store environment is causing a lot of concern amongst OEMs around the world who are developing hardware for Android. One concern they have is whether they will be liable if an app causes harm to user, such as identity theft. I’m not a lawyer, so I have passed that question on to someone more qualified to address it from a legal standpoint.

Much of this concern can be traced to a report from SMobile Systems. The security company performed a threat analysis, discovering that thousands of applications in the Android market grant access to personal information, location data, or access to services that “could be used for nefarious purposes.” The report adds that about 20 percent of the 50,000 apps in the Android Market “request permission to access private or sensitive information that an attacker could use for malicious purposes.” Google contends that users have full control over this process, but the fact is that users grant permissions without fully understanding what they’re doing.

Yet even with these concerns, companies are jumping on the Android bandwagon in droves. At the recent Computex show in Taipei, vendors showcased Android products by the truckload, including PCs, consumer electronic devices, and smartphones. But many companies are still concerned that, especially in the tablet space, Apple could, as one person put it, “really iPod us out of the market.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that, while Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, it perfected the device, quickly becoming the standard. No company has come close to challenging it. Companies are concerned that Apple’s iPad will have the same effect on the tablet space. They see Android as their best hope of competing.

These companies are also concerned with the future of the software community’s support for Android. According to Lava Labs, ” $6,000,000 has been paid out to developers for games, and $15,000,000 has been paid out on apps. That is a total of $21,000,000, nearly 1/50th the amount paid out to devs on iPhone.

Apple, meanwhile, has paid out $1 billion to its developers. Google is going to have to figure out a way for developers to make money directly off of apps–and not just through Google ads–if it is going to maintain a steady pace of app development.

These challenges are significant, but they’re not insurmountable. Android is clearly the best option for companies looking to compete with the iPhone. If they offer innovative designs and effectively leverage Android and its software community, they may stay competitive yet.