Two and a half years ago, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and T-Mobile introduced the world to the very first Android phone, the G1. It was a good phone with a workmanlike design, decent keyboard, an average screen and lots of Google goodness built right into it. No one, least of all me, thought it stood much of a chance against the surging Apple iPhone.
For a solid year, the platform looked like a dud. But a funny thing happened on the way to the morgue.
Seven months later, T-Mobile unveiled the keyboard-less MyTouch 3G. As before, it was a nice looking, though slightly curvier, Android phone. It wasn't until the fall of 2009, more than a year after the G1 and Android's launch, that the platform got interesting. That was when Motorola started talking openly about the Droid. By casting aside just two letters and joining with the leading mobile carrier that didn't get the iPhone, Motorola and Google signaled their intention to make Android bolder, sexier and far more desirable.
In almost every way, the Motorola Droid was designed to take on the Apple iPhone. It featured a next-generation, ARM Cortex 550-MHz mobile CPU; a huge and, for the time, high-resolution screen; and a slide-away keyboard. Granted, the iPhone doesn't offer a physical keyboard, but for those that wanted the sex appeal of an iPhone with a more familiar physical interface, the Droid was tailor-made. The Droid also made better use of existing Google services, like the directions in Google Maps, with its GPS-enabled turn-by-turn services.
The Droid also marked the beginning of Android's problematic platform upgrade process. As soon as the Droid arrived, the handful of other existing Android phones were suddenly out of date. Verizon and Motorola had leapt to Android 2.0, while virtually all other Android devices were still running 1.6. Frustrating, but ultimately this mattered about as much as an umbrella in a hurricane. Sure, existing Android users wanted the latest version of the mobile OS, but their numbers were still small. The reality was that from the moment it was unveiled, the Motorola Droid became the best smartphone on the Verizon network.
In Their Heads
It's fascinating to watch how quickly a new brand can bleed into popular culture and then become a part of everyday conversation. When it was Google, Android and the T-Mobile G1, few people outside my industry asked me about the phone or platform. Part of this was because, at the time, not many had heard of the hardware manufacturer HTC. They also considered T-Mobile "Number 4" among the major carriers (an unfortunate circumstance that may have led some to believe the G1 was a low-end phone—it wasn't). Lastly, consumers didn't really understand what was special about Android and may even have been tuned off by the too-techy name.
Motorola is a big brand. Verizon is, for now, the number one carrier in the U.S., and Droid was a cuter, somewhat more approachable name. Not that you'd know that from watching any of the Droid commercials, which have been generally scary and foreboding. Though that, too, may have helped attract those who wanted to own a super-cool mobile device.
All these factors combined to thrust the new Droid into America's collective frontal cortex, right alongside the Apple iPhone and, "What am I having for dinner tonight?" Almost every day from November 2009 through to the spring of 2010, I heard the same question: Should I get an iPhone or a Droid?
In those early days, I likely still recommended the iPhone (even on the AT&T network) because I thought Apple had the stronger ecosystem and easily outstripped the 20,000 apps in the Android Marketplace.
What I didn't realize though is that Android would grow and change in a way that Apple's iPhone could not. That Droid release in late 2009 was like pulling a tiny, yet lovely, pebble from beneath a massive pile of rocks. As soon as the pebble went, the landslide began and the market was soon overwhelmed with a stunning variety of Android devices. By mid 2010, we had Android on virtually every major carrier and from all manufacturers. They came with and without keyboards, and in increasingly larger sizes with more and more spectacular screens. Apple released a new iPhone in 2010—the iPhone 4—and finally joined the Android on Verizon in February of this year. So that's two handsets to, by one measure, 80 different SKUs (which probably translates into a couple dozen official models).
Android has over 100,000 apps and more hardware variety than Apple may ever have. It accounts for one-third of the U.S. smartphone market. It is, by all accounts, "winning". So why, then, hasn't it won?
Yes, Android phones beat Apple iPhone in market share. Mindshare, though, is another matter. By having one phone (the iPhones on Verizon and AT&T are almost identical) and a single, tightly controlled ecosystem and app store, Apple has been able to manage and hone its mobile image into something approaching solar brilliance. Android has multiple markets, relatively fewer checks and balances in the app creation and distribution department, and significant platform version control issues.
So far, these issues haven't slowed Android down, but they will, eventually. Here's what Google and its partners need to do this year to beat Apple on mobile market and mindshare.
1) One Platform for All: I know that Google loves to release software as soon as, and sometimes before, it's ready. Google Chrome updates, for example, never actually cease. If Google and not its carrier partners controlled the operating system on Android phones, this would work well. That's not the case. So I suggest twice yearly, scheduled updates. Google should coordinate the schedule with all partners and make this part of the agreement. You have to accept the timing and contents of the updates—no matter what.
2) Vet Your Apps: Don't kill the pace of development, but enlist an army of freelance app testers to give every app a once-over. This quality assurance step should take no more than one week and will only be in place to make sure nothing dangerous goes into any Android marketplace.
3) Don't Stop Standing Out: I like that Android partners regularly push the hardware envelope and are often first with bleeding-edge technology like 4G and kickstands (why can't that be a part of every smart phone?). But I do worry that the pace of innovation is slowing as each and every Android phone looks like a giant, lovely slab.
4) One interface: Carriers can still offer interface enhancements, but those should be opt-in only. Let's have each Android phone arrive looking the same and consumers pick and choose the enhancements they like. None of these enhancements, however, should prevent the Android phone from accepting the next available platform update.
5) Lower Your prices: Apple set the new normal for smartphones by pricing the iPhone at $199. Android phones should all cost $149 on launch date. Do that and Apple will have to make some adjustments.
Can Google's Android still be the same free-wheeling, open platform with all this control? I don't know. Will this conformity hurt innovation? I doubt it. Guidelines and standards help speed the adoption of new and innovative ideas. Without them, the most impressive changes show in some places, but not others, inspiring few, instead of many.
I like what Google and its partners have done with Android and where it's going, but I'm also just as pleased with Apple and its iPhone. In other words, I don't care who wins, I'm only interested in seeing a more entertaining fight.