Is it time to Occupy Android?

I wanted to share with you some thoughts on the current problem facing Android users as it illustrates an example of what happens with conflicting incentives. Much of the frustration people across the political spectrum are having right now is the ramifications of other people's incentives (corporations seeking to maximize profit, politicians seeking to buy votes with public funds, etc.)

Android was an exciting game-changing event in the realm of OS's and business models. It provided an alternative to Apple's walled garden approach and gave consumers more choice for a mobile OS.

However, three years on, the problems with model are growing. Here's a perfect example:

Google says Ice Cream sandwich, their latest OS will not be coming to the original Nexus One.

Meanwhile iOS 5 runs on the iPhone 3GS (a phone even older than the Nexus One)

Why is the 'open' platform not going to run on a phone newer than a 'closed' platform (without asking non-technical users to resort to unsupported technical fixes)?

Part I: Incentives

- For Android users this is a quandary best understood by incentives. In the Android ecosystem the phone manufacturer doesn't make anything after they sell you a phone. There's no incentive to push the update. They'd rather you just buy a new phone: Even if there's a only a 1-in-4 chance you'll buy it from them, they'll still make more money through that avenue. Updates are done begrudgingly, and usually only when they can push their own skins onto them (that most people don't want).

- Google makes their money when you use mobile search – whether it's on an older Android or an iPhone. They don't care about your OS as long as you're using a phone with Google search built in.

- Apple makes money from selling you the hardware and then getting a percentage of app store sales (plus a percentage of mobile search). They have an incentive to make their iOS backwards compatible to ensure they sell more apps. This gives a them a large non-fragmented platform than Android. The iPhone 3GS is three models back, yet it still runs the latest iOS. Apple is still selling apps, music, videos and search on older iPhones – because older, updated phones still make them money.

PART II: The Motorola Problem
Google promised to deal with the fragmentation problem, but their current actions actually run counter to that: When they purchased Motorola it only serves to make other handset manufacturers less ambitions about the Android platform.

Buying Motorola also sets Google up with conflicting incentives:

1). If they encourage Motorola to push the latest Android builds onto older phones, they serve Android users interests, while cannibalizing potential handset sales from their partners and themselves. Google's incentives would override Motorola's incentives and you have a hardware company running as a loss leader – something all the other manufacturers fear.

2.) If they let Motorola continue to do what they've done before and not push through updates to hardware that's not that old, they do their users a disservice and continue a bad practice that's making Android as a platform a less desirable choice.

Will it be the handset manufacturers or the users in this choice? We already know who Google is going to choose: their advertisers. Their overriding incentive isn't putting Android phones in people's hands, it's having the largest audience of people they can sell to marketers. They created Android because they rightfully feared Apple taking mobile search out from underneath them. But so far, it's a platform that's cost them far more than they've made or can expect to make for the next several years.

Google now has a triple threat in Facebook pushing to go more mobile, Amazon using a fork they don't control for the Kindle Fire and Apple pushing search into new areas via Siri.

With Apple and Amazon, we understand their primary incentives: They want to sell you stuff.

While Google talks about 'open', their real goal, same as it has always been, is to sell you to advertisers. Anytime they pretend that's not it, be wary.

A Solution
The biggest threat to Apple's iPad is going to be Amazon's Kindle Fire. Leaked sales figures have it outselling the iPad right now. While this may be a win for Android as a platform, it means nothing for Android users on other devices. Amazon is using a fork of the code and apps designed for the Kindle Fire are in no way guaranteed to work outside of that ecosystem.

As long as Android development is run in house by Google, their goals and directives will always be dictated by the people trying to sell advertising. We're already seeing the many problem in that model.

There are at least four solutions:

1.) Google spins off Android into an OS company.
2.) A third-party company forks Android like Amazon has done, but for mobile.
3.) A third-party non-profit takes Android along the Firefox path.
4.) Google gets carriers to give up a share of app revenue and search to handset makers.

Alternatively, we may see Amazon extend its version into phones. At that point it becomes a war between Apple and Amazon. Or we see another advertising company, Facebook step into the fray and repeat many of the same problems Google has.

Deep down I'd love to see Google explore some of those industry-shakind ideas they explored before the became just another OS platform. What about totally disrupting telecom and saying to hell with the wireless networks and the hardware manufactures?

I'm okay with them offering a product in exchange for selling me to advertisers. As long as their incentive is clear, we both get what we want. When it's severely compromised between handset manufactures and carriers, the users come last. Just ask someone who bought a Nexus One.

(Andrew Mayne is a science fiction and thriller writer: http://andrewmayne.com/books )
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