Advice for Android Phonemakers: Make it So Good


Avi Greengart over at Slashgear has some advice for handset manufacturers who want to succeed in the Android market.  It's worth a read, and then it's worth some comment.

Greengart likes Android's "non-obtrusive notification system" and compares it favorably with iOS's.  In case you don't have an iPhone, let's just say iOS relies heavily on blue bubble pop-up notifications that don't just interrupt you, they demand your immediate attention no matter what you were doing.  Then they allowed third-party apps to use the same delightful method to get their messages to you.  Each notification covers the previous one.   This is one thing Android got right.  He likes that Android is open source (sort of, as Google licenses the software that works with their online apps) and that the Android Market has so many apps on offer.


Oh, he's got his complaints about Android, too.  He thinks the UI is relatively more difficult to master than iOS and thus tends to appeal to the tech-savvy over the general population.  (You know.  Geeks.)  He feels Android hasn't done enough to make social network integration work out of the box, hasn't provided a PC client for storage and synchronization, and doesn't make it easy to get existing video (movies and tv shows) onto the phones.

With that said up front, Greengart now explains how phone makers can compete having made the decision to go Android.  There are many different Android phones in different designs, varying UI overlays, and at different price points.  If you are manufacturer who "buys" Android rather than designing your own OS, then you compete with every other Android phone out there.  How do you  differentiate your offering?

  • Price – Well, as soon as I heard this one I thought of my favorite manufacturer of the month, Augen, and how you get what you pay for.  Other than extreme "on-the-cheap" examples, carrier subsidies make actual prices unclear to the consumer, as most smartphones list for standard amounts unrelated to their retail price.
  • Hardware specs – This is less of an issue when vendors have access to same components. Android phones compete well against Apple offerings with beefed-up hardware. Compare the iPhone 4's superior screen resolution to its smaller (3.5") screen, better for reading text but worse for movie-viewing.  (Greengart takes this opportunity to complain about the difficulty of getting movies onto an Android phone.)   Actually if we're going to talk hardware, I have two words to say.  Antenna.  Gate.  Yeah, that's a design issue too.
  • Software Customization – While early Android OS was fairly bare-bones, later versions are richer, making customization both more difficult and less necessary. Example: Android 2.2 (Froyo) puts the phone icon on the static ribbon so it's always there, no matter what you're doing or what your screen is showing.  But Greengart still sees problems with social networking, media, and gaming.
  • Design – Most Android phones are essentially screen-on-a-slab.  A manufacturer could try a different form factor but it's not clear they would succeed with everyone.  Hey, if you don't take a risk, you're not going to hit a home run either.  And some users love physical keyboards and wont' buy a phone without one.  Are you up for improving the slide-out style?
  • Availability – This issue is huge, as all the best phones are sold out.  Control your supply chain and you will succeed here.
  • Carrier – Without backing by a wireless carrier, your phone will not succeed.  Even Apple, with their own stores, worked with AT&T and eventually accepted the subsidy model they had avoided.  Carriers differ in how much they need Android, how much they choose to control it, and marketing sub-brands (such as Sprint's Virgin Mobile and Assurance Wireless).  With their huge advertising budgets, carriers matter as much as other 5 items, including what other competitive phones each carrier stocks.

Higher-end manufacturers do spend the time to supplement some of Android's weaknesses Greengart highlighted above.  Motorola, for one, seems to have addressed many of them with their own widgets or desktop synching software.


I agree that carriers rule.  Think of all the people who wanted an iPhone but refused to ditch their carrier for AT&T and ended up with Android instead.  Hardware specs matter too: the techies who love Android love powerful hardware and juicy benchmark results, too.  Availability?  If you want the phone, will you wait or will you buy something else?  Verizon suspected that DroidX sales were higher than expected because customers, tired of the one-month backlog on the HTC Incredible, simply switched their order to the new Motorola offering.

What would you tell the handset manufacturer that you look for in a phone?  Is it any of these six items or something else?  For me, I want it to work well.  I want to feel that whatever team designed it did their best to avoid quirks and lags and annoying glitches.  Good hardware will help with speed and storage size, good software will ensure an enjoyable experience, good design will have the phone feel right in my hand.  That's a mix of several factors, but I could call it "rightness."  It isn't enough to get the parts done well if they don't work together.

I've already committed to one carrier, so if you're selling a phone and Verizon doesn't stock it, I'm probably never going to consider it.  And face it, the upper end smartphones all seem to retail for $200 with a contract.  As to availability, I got myself a DroidX by walking into Verizon on launch day.  The early nerd gets her turn.