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A bad year for Android

25/1/09

Sunday lunch with my folks and the discussion turned to Obama. “How can he possibly hope to deliver everything that’s expected of him” opined my father. I’m hopeful that he can, because a lot of the economic woes are down to confidence and if he can capitalise on the confidence he inspires it becomes a virtuous circle.

Being me my mind wandered to mobile and the great hope for 2009: Android.

I like Google. I think that Google Page creator is fantastic, I use Adsense, Google Earth and friends connect. I don’t go for any longer than ten minutes at a time without using Google Desktop. It’s a company which has changed my life for the better. This isn’t knocking Google because everyone else things they are great. I think they are great too.

But like Obama, there are great things expected for Android in 2009, unlike Obama the most important thing isn’t confidence but compatibility. Shipping a phone is hard, building a platform harder and maintain a platform hardest. The challenge will come in 2009 when so many handset manufacturers, operators and developers are pulling the software in different directions. Google’s Rich Miner may have a view of software survival of the fittest but such Darwinian evolution takes time. A long time. It will need millions of mutations to work out which rival shopping application is the best.  Remember when the best search engine was Alta Vista, then Yahoo and now Google. Getting it right takes time and the interrelationships between applications on a mobile device are much tighter than those on a PC.

Against this Android is the king of cool. The new president of mobile OSes. The development community is abuzz with excitement and expects Android to be on every phone in an instant. Like monkeys at typewriters they are coding like there is no tomorrow. When the phones sell in merely reasonable numbers the applications in competition with too many others will ship in pathetic volumes and the developers who were looking to Android as their future income will turn against it.

Then phones will start to ship late. Actually it’s already happened. The second Android phone, the  Kogan Agora has  been delayed indefinitely.

All this is normal. The consultancy Gartner calls this the hype curve you get a cool new product, people expect too much of it, become excessively disappointed, and then with no expectations set, realise it’s really quite good and become productive. For Android 2008 was the technology trigger, we are now at the top of the Peak of Inflated Expectations and 2009 will be the slough of despond.

So it will take a couple of years to get going. That’s not so bad. Symbian and Windows mobile took three times that.

Unfortunately another factor comes into play. Google is doing all the work on Android for free. It cost Symbian and Microsoft an estimated billion dollars each to get to where they are today. Some people say a lot more. Even if Google can do it for a tenth of the price thanks to the leverage of the open source community it’s still a lot of money for something you give away.

Of course Google has famously deep pockets so what’s a hundred mill to them? In 2008 a lot of money, but in 2009 it’ll be very much more. Google is an advertising funded company, it’s seen growth at a multiple of the speed of the growth of the internet. The poster child of new media and as advertising executives like to play safe Google has been the place they want to use their money. With the economy boom Google growth was in overdrive.

This year is very different, there is some protection because Google is about classified advertising but it will be the first time Google sees falling revenues and significant bad debt. As advertisers go into recession mode the media planners will revert to the security blankets of TV and printed media. Yes, they really are that dim.

Google won’t know what’s happened. It will start to look for cuts. A nice-to-have mobile operating system that’s draining more money than expected and no real business plan will be high up on the list of cutbacks. While the software community screams that Android is what the world needs and the power of open source is the future, Google will be frowning at the bank statement.

Who would want to be on the list of companies reliant on Android? Well it’s a short list, there is only one name: Motorola . Although Bill’s article on The Reg doesn’t realise that Motorola has bet on the nose for Android, rather that the three way he thinks. P2K is dead too.

So if Google gets cold feet on Android, Motorola will have to take it on. You won’t see which way the other OHA members went if that happens.

While I’m optimistic for Obama I’ve doubts on Android, and I’d much rather it was that way around, my world might be mobile phones and Android would make it a better place, but to people in the real world, peace and prosperity is much more important.

 

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