Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm.

The End Of Android

Irresponsible speculation about Google’s management change.

Android Booth MWC 2012

Why is Andy Rubin no longer running the mobile platform he created? Who knows. Probably only a few people know the real reason. Maybe Andy doesn’t even know. This sort of stuff is complicated. Maybe we’ll read about it in Steven Levy’s next book, or maybe we’ll never find out. So it goes.

But even from the outside, it’s easy to see that the Android situation isn’t ideal. Yes, it is the world’s “most popular” mobile phone platform, if you sort by the number of people using it, and that’s an impressive achievement. But it certainly isn’t making the sort of impact — on the world and on Google itself — that it perhaps could or should.

  • Android has done little to radically disrupt the mobile industry. The majority of power still belongs to the same telecom operators that ruled five years ago, and many of the same handset/component makers. Google has helped Samsung boringly ascend and has accelerated decline at Nokia and BlackBerry. It has perhaps stopped Apple from selling as many phones as it might in an Android-free world, and has helped prevent Microsoft from gaining a solid foothold in mobile. It has allowed bookstores to create serviceable, semi-popular tablet devices. But phones are still bought and sold pretty much the same way they always have been, for roughly the same price, and wireless service is still something people pay a bunch of money for. There are no free, self-driving phones with ad-subsidized service. There are no hippie P2P data-sharing schemes for unlocked Androids. There are few mobile hardware hobbyists or tinkerers. Many Android users don’t even do anything interesting with their phones. Everything is still so normal, so unremarkable, so un-Googly.
  • Android has done little to give Google more power. It has helped maintain Google’s dominant share in mobile search and its early lead in mobile advertising. But you could say that about the iPhone, too. Actually, way too much of the conversation is about how little power Google really has over Android. Samsung famously snubbed the Android brand at its Galaxy S 4 event, and the question seems to be when — not if — it’ll make its own “forked” version of Android to further reduce Google’s influence. Amazon has basically taken all of Google’s hard work and run away with it. In the fast-growing China market, you can guess how much Google services matter. Some of this was by design: Android was launched as something for everyone to tinker with, customize, and use for their own devices. And to some extent, all of this is good for Google — it gets more people using the Internet on more mobile devices, where they’re likely to see Google’s ads. But things have also changed since 2007. If the future of the mobile business relies on services — everything from messages and calendars to cloud storage, media streaming, app stores, and health/fitness — Google needs to assert more control over its platform. (And possibly retract some of the freedoms it has granted.) It’s sometimes on shaky ground now.
  • Android has done little to make Google more profitable. If anything, it’s made a huge crater in the balance sheet with the Motorola acquisition. (And has inadvertently made Microsoft a bunch of patent-licensing money, too.) Now, as I argued when the deal was announced, Motorola could actually prove to be an excellent business model for Android, if it can become the dominant Google phone vendor. (Imagine some or all of Samsung’s profits as Google’s, instead.) But so far, that hasn’t happened. Yes, Google is making some money from mobile search and banner ads, YouTube ads, etc. But probably not nearly as much as it could.

What does all this mean? Well, maybe it’s time to do something dramatic and change the rules.

Maybe it’s time to cut back on what gets open-sourced, handed to Samsung and Amazon for free. Maybe it’s time to demand a big chunk of the profits that Google’s work is generating. Maybe it’s time to keep the best stuff for itself, driving profits through Motorola phone sales. Or maybe it’s time for Android to fade away and the next generation of whatever to rise up?

Maybe Larry Page wanted Andy Rubin to do something that he didn’t want to do? Or that Larry didn’t think he could do? Or maybe Andy really just wanted to work on something else with fewer people answering to him. We’ll find out eventually, or not.

Either way, it’d be most surprising now if things just stayed the same.