The seismic shifts in mobile software that we’ve been anticipating for the last year have finally arrived. Not only has Google’s Android Platform finally dethroned Nokia’s Symbian from its primary market position, but Nokia themselves have given up on the platform after years of desperately attempting to make competitive ‘N-Series’ smartphones with the technology.
There’s definitely a political dimension. Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 has been enthusiastically reviewed but tepidly received by hardware manufacturers up to now. Nokia is the largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world, with a global market share of about 28% and two decades worth of industry brand loyalty. An alliance between the two definitely means that Microsoft will become a contender against not only the versatile Android OS, but also the premium, innovative Apple iOS.
Nokia needs the Microsoft brand as much as Microsoft needs Nokia. Their luddite smartphones have angered loyal customers, and the long term picture has been a decline in their prized market share from 38% in 2009 to the current 28%. A move to Android could well have been ineffective too, because of the fact that they’d just be another face in the crowd. Some eighty firms are members of the Open Handset Alliance, and Android operating systems have appeared on phones from all of Nokia’s closest Manufacturing competitors.
Almost since its creation, the diversity of implementations has been Android’s major point of criticism. There are now over 250 smartphones running Android’s six distinct commercially available versions (carriers either refuse to or simply cannot supply the latest version for every generation of handsets). And there are many more on the way, and this is without even considering the wealth of netbooks, tablets, e-readers and other devices that run the Android OS. This proliferation is a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, competition has driven prices well below the iOS experience with a comparable experience. But on the development side of things, Android has none of the appeal of iOS’ infinitely narrower hardware catalog.
To say that Android has an image problem at this stage would be inaccurate, but not every developer believes that the fragmentation of the platform is worth contending with considering the less than avid audience. Android is the platform that is for people who ‘just want a smartphone’, even if enthusiasts are among their numbers.
Whilst Android users were undoubtedly overjoyed that Rovio’s hugely popular Angry Birds game made it to the platform in a free to play form, this advert enabled app is a telling sign of the lesser profitability on the platform. The app’s release onto the Android Market was met with a wall of complaints from users of devices that lacked the power to play the game at a satisfactory speed. With so many devices on the market, how could Rovio (or a smaller, less successful app developer) possibly predict which devices would have problems? Furthermore, when phones aren’t sold like high-end PCs, how can users expect to know whether their phone is high performance enough? (the currently manufactured HTC Wildfire is among the most confusing low end cases).
The platform is certainly not without its virtues: the fact that support doesn’t simply drop into a black hole with every new generation (as with iPhone devices) is one of them. Ultimately, Android has a lot in common with the Personal Computer as a gaming platform, with all the open-endedness, modability, piracy and growing irrelevance that that will eventually entail (of course, the analogy breaks down the second you consider that Apple are the dominant force in mobile apps right now). In the meantime, consumers sticking within the best-selling Android devices, with the most generous carriers will have a fantastic mobile experience. It’s just a shame that, in the lower to mid-range, things will always be very hit and miss. One platform, hundreds of idiosyncratic bugs to wipe out.
This is a guest post by Steph Wood, who is a new blogger with an appreciation and understanding of everything techy: from games consoles to tumble dryers. If it spins on some level, it can probably be blogged about.