In its court battle with Oracle, Larry Page, CEO of Google, was recently reported to have described the company’s Android platform as “important, but not critical” to its core business. To a certain extent, this could be put down to stagecraft, an attempt to play down the significance of Android for the court. But in many ways, he has a point.
Google is notorious for providing scant details of its mobile activities, but one thing is clear – Android alone is not a money spinner. Instead, it is an enabler for the company’s core advertising business, extending it beyond the desktop into the mobile Internet space. And mobile, Google has said, is worth billions to the company already, and is only going to get bigger.
But Android is already proving to be something of a burden. The company is embroiled in a costly and time consuming lawsuit to defend itself against Oracle’s claims of intellectual property infringement. And the US$12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility was at least in part attributable to the need for Google to bolster its patent portfolio in the mobile market, to provide it with some defence against more established competitors in this space.
The Motorola acquisition has raised many eyebrows in the industry. While operators and observers were already questioning Google’s growing influence in the mobile space, with this deal it also managed to prompt concern among its vendor partners – the very companies who made Android the success it is.
Of course, Google has promised business-as-usual, but should there be any sign it is favouring its new subsidiary, other vendors may find their commitment towards the platform waning. While there is no obvious replacement in the wings, should HTC, LG Electronics and Samsung increase their support of another OS, the rest of the ecosystem will surely follow.
And Google still has the cost and responsibility of developing Android, without generating revenue that is directly attributable to this business. As Apple, or Microsoft, or the former Symbian execs, or the staff of Palm/HP, or the MeeGo stakeholders, will testify, this is no easy task.
What the smartphone industry has shown, almost to a greater extent than any other sector, is that present trends are no guarantee of future success. Looking back only a few short years, Symbian OS was dominant, and Android was little more than a sideshow. And while BlackBerry has had a significant position in the smartphone market for some time, its position is shrinking in the face of fierce competition from rival platforms.
The real challenge comes through transition, as time passes and a platform is left behind due to its legacy features and performance.
Palm never managed to transition beyond the original PalmOS, despite having two mooted evolution paths (Cobalt as far back as 2004, and then webOS). Symbian reached the end of the line, as it became unable to effectively support the new features demanded by device makers and consumers.
Microsoft abandoned Windows Mobile completely to shift to Windows Phone, leaving it to rebuild its market share from the ground-up. RIM is struggling in the interregnum between BlackBerry 7 and the completely fresh BlackBerry 10.
When Android begins to look as if its time has come, will Google feel the need to shoulder the burden of refreshing the platform from the ground up? Or will it feel that this role now falls to someone else, either evolving the open source Android code or through a shift to a completely fresh platform?
If the aim of Android is to drive use of mobile internet services by consumers, it is job done. And there are no shortage of platforms that – could – fill the gap created by the departure of Android. Indeed, what’s not to say that in a couple of years’ time, a new platform will not emerge to become the darling of the market, without the legacy issues? After all, this is exactly what Android did.
Directly and indirectly, Android has cost Google a lot of cash. And while it has helped popularise the mobile Internet, so has iOS and various other device platforms and browsers. The ball is now rolling: Google could now opt-out of the mobile platform market, while continuing to reap the rewards.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members