AH Primetime: Is Android Under Threat From Within?

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One or two newspapers have picked up on a research document from the ABI, which showed that Android handset shipments fell during Q4 2014. Depending on the paper(s) you read, some highlight Apple’s record-breaking sales quarter whereas others blame Android’s flexibility and how easy it is for competitors to fork the code and write their own operating system based on Android. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle: Android has grown to become the dominant mobile operating system and this won’t last forever. Its greatest strength – that flexibility – means that there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs to build their own operating system.

First, it’s important to understand what is meant when we read about an Android device. Depending on your perspective, anything other than a Nexus is an Android-based handset; those devices running a custom skin such as Samsung, HTC, Sony are Android-based handsets. Those devices running a forked version of Android, such as Xiaomi, the Amazon Fire Phone and anything running Cyanogenmod, say; these may also be considered Android-based. It appears that the ABI consider anything that comes with the Google Services out of the box to be a Google Android device, which means it must follow Google’s guidelines, mostly around keeping the operating system up to date. Those devices sold without Google Services out of the box (the Xiaomis and Fire Phones of this world) are excluded. And it’s this category that’s growing; the ABI consider that Android powers around 80% of the smartphones around the world. The balance mostly consists of iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Symbian OS, although there are others.

How big a threat are these forked versions of Android to Google’s Android? Cyanogen made big, bad wolf howls earlier in the week announcing that they’re “going to take Android away from Google.” They have $100 million in the bank, which is cute compared with Google’s billions. However, the headline stories that forked Android is a threat to Google’s Android is interesting because the ABI’s data shows that 85 million forked Android devices were sold, compared with 75 million iPhones and 205 million Android devices. If there is a threat, it must be at the “clear and present danger” stage. And yet! Xiaomi’s Google-less Android is dictated by most of Google’s services being blocked in China. Xiaomi have had to make do without these services. Xiaomi have moved to be the world’s third largest smartphone manufacturer in just four years and are continuing to grow. There are political reasons why we are seeing such strong non-Google Android growth!

Ultimately, for all Cyanogen’s posturing that they’re going to wrestle control of Android from Google for the good of the industry, perhaps they’re missing the point. Android already is available for anybody who wants it, free of charge. Google Services is a difference between Android and Google Android. If customers want to use Google’s services and applications, they’re going to either install them onto their device, or pick one that comes with these applications already installed. Xiaomi and Amazon have already built core services to integrate into their forked versions of Android. Cyanogenmod are working on an application store and presumably other projects, too. They’re going to need it to encourage customers to switch to their version of Google-less Android.

Because ultimately, whenever I use a non-Google Android smartphone, it’s the Google Services that I miss. I like how BlackBerry 10 works but it doesn’t support Google Services like I’d want it to. iOS and Windows Phone are missing support too. Google is in the advertising and information arenas; Android is a great way to provide it with information, directly or indirectly. It’s difficult to gauge the likely threat to Google Android as there are many factors, but I am confident that there is room for both in the next billion users.