There is only one reason why Google is investing in Android. And it’s the same reason that Google invests in just about anything else:
To gain access to (and if possible to control access to) information … so that it can sell ads and otherwise monetize data flows and resultant behavior.
Android is of course a mobile play, and mobile/social is where there is tremendous growth. So if Google is going to parlay its amazing success in traditional search, Google needs to be on the phone. In Apple’s new mobile garden, data access and behavior flows are app-centric … not web-centric. They use the internet, but not the WWW.
That’s deadly for Google, because it conceals activity and favors silos of data over the all-knowing oracular Googleplex. This is precisely the reason why Android development kicked into extreme high gear well after the release of the Apple iPhone … when it became clear that apps and not the web was the focus. So Android is a power play to ensure that the mobile internet/web is open to Google (and perhaps favors Google).
But Google has a problem.
And the problem is this: Android is open source and anyone can do anything to it that they wish. More precisely, Android uses an Apache-style license, not a GPL-style license (see a good explanation here). Most precisely of all: organizations that want to modify open source software released with an Apache-style license can integrate it with closed-source code and do NOT have re-release their modifications.
Mix that together with a carrier-centric distribution model where the telcoms all want to do exactly what is in their own best interests … and you have a recipe for fragmentation, for forking, for slowing development (or at least release), and many (slightly) different proprietary forms of Android – if not significantly at the code level, at least at the user interface level.
And that means that Google’s attempt to remain the arbiter of all information in the mobile world is at the tender mercies of the telecoms’ desires to make money. Hmm … smell any problems yet?
MG Siegler laid out some of these problems in a TechCruch article recently: Android Is As Open As The Clenched Fist I’d Like To Punch The Carriers With. Imagine multiple apps stores, where developers have to add and validate their apps in 5-10 stores instead of one. Imagine crapware pre-loaded onto phones, just like cheap PCs at Circuit City, because the carrier will be paid for placement or use. Imagine limits on what software you can or can’t install. Imagine funky UIs dreamed up by HCI neophytes who thinks it “looks cool,” even though it’s completely unusable. All this adds up to a bad user experience and an annoying client/provider relationship … none of which will help in a fight against the iEmpire.
But the worst possible news from Google’s perspective is getting kicked off their own phone platform. And that’s precisely what might happen, if Microsoft’s marketing and financial muscle is put in play. There’s already rumors that Bing will replace Google on Verizon phones. Just imagine the consequences for Google.
And yet, it might serve them right.
Google has gotten to where it is by destroying a lot of business models. Gmail commoditizes email; Android and Chrome commoditize operating systems, Google Docs commoditizes productivity apps … the list goes on, and on, and on.
Wouldn’t it be poetic justice if Android ended up commoditizing Google?
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Here’s a very good overview of Google’s Android problems from a different perspective:
Here’s another similar column, by Jean-Louis Gasée (formerly of Apple):