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11 Jun 12 Today Apple and Microsoft write Android’s epitaph

As I compose this post, Microsoft’s TechEd keynote is underway, while Apple will kick off Worldwide Developer Conference in just a few hours. Both events will put forth very different views of the cloud-connected device future, which Gartner says will start as soon as 2014, when the cloud replaces the PC as everyone’s personal digital hub.

For Apple, iOS 6 will be center stage, whetting consumers’ appetites and giving them another weapon in their bring-your-own-device assault on workplace IT. Meanwhile, Microsoft pitches new wares for the enterprise — Office, Windows 8, RT and Server, for starters. Where the two companies meet is the tablet, and there’s no room between them for Android.

Matters would be better for Google’s OS if Android tablets weren’t such market failures or had the search and information giant taken decisive leadership when there was still time. In January 2011, while iPad 2 rumors circled, I explained: “The most important tablet is missing from CES, and it’s not iPad 2“, but a Google Nexus device. Google needed to do for tablets what Nexus One and its successors did for smartphones: Establish a reference design and provide developers a device with always up-to-date Android.

In December, when Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said a branded tablet would come within about a half-year, I warned: “Google Nexus tablet in six months is a year too late“. Apple’s lead is too great, and the sleeping giant, meaning Microsoft, would soon wake up. Oh, whoa, has it.

Last week, Microsoft partners showed off compelling Windows RT tablets at Computex. Google and Microsoft share many of the same OEMs, which will find more leverage moving buyers from Windows to Android. Asus’ Windows RT Transformer tablet, thumps its flagship for Android — and could be a knockout if the price comes in well under $500.

Android tablets haven’t gained market share fast enough to secure solid footing. Windows RT can easily push them aside, as well as Windows 8 combos with touchscreens and keyboards. If Android loses the tablet wars it could easily lose the broader mobile platform wars — even smartphones. Look at the United States, where, according to comScore, one in four smartphone users already own tablets. With Windows’ established install base as leverage, RT tablets will offer much more from the same OEMs as Android and court the majority of the same developers.

Platform 101 economics is this: The must successful platforms make money for third parties. In tablets, that’s more likely to be iOS or Windows RT/8 than Android. The Android Army should worry about advancing Microsoft more than Apple territory before it.

Yesterday, Android chief Andy Rubin revealed there are 900,000 activations per day. He last disclosed activations per day — 850,000 — on February 27. The new number means 27 million a month or 81 million every 90 days. That number is consistent with actual smartphone sales. Gartner, which tracks sales to end users rather than the analyst firm standard of shipments into the channel, reports 81.067 million Androids sold during first quarter. Based on the reconciled numbers, and those from analysts tracking tablet shipments, Android does squat in the device category.

Clearly someone at Google recognizes the risk — hence the late-coming Nexus tablet (if you believe the rumors and I do) and purchase of QuickOffice. Windows RT tablets ship with Office 2012. Google needs something like QuickOffice that competes. Google Apps isn’t enough when Office — the product enterprises use and love so well — comes with the device.

If Android loses on tablets, particularly considering high usage alongside smartphones and replacement behavior with respect to PCs, it could lose the connected-device platform wars to iOS and Windows RT/8. Apple and Microsoft may be writing the epitaph, but Android isn’t in the ground yet. The body is still full of life. But if Google continues its brain-dead behavior, someone someday soon will pull the plug on life support. Are you listening, Google?

Photo Credit: metalstock/Shutterstock

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09 Jun 12 Android updates embarrassing, but do users notice?

It was big news this week that most
Android phones haven’t yet been upgraded to the latest Android operating system. Developers also seem to still prefer writing apps for Apple devices, despite Google’s predictions. That’s sure embarrassing for Google. But does it make that much of a difference to the Android user? I’ll offer myself up as a reality check.

The statistics on the sorry situation come from Google itself. Only 7.1 percent of devices that have recently accessed Google Play are listed as using the latest Android 4 “Ice Cream Sandwich” version of Google’s mobile operating system (anything from Android 4.0 to Android 4.0.4). Most are far behind, using Android 2 “Honeycomb” versions ranging from Android 2.0 through Android 2.3.7.

I prefer Android 2 to Android 4 myself, so I’m kind of pleased that one of my two main Android phones, the Galaxy S II Skyrocket with ATT, is still on the older version. But it is also annoying. When’s that phone going to get upgraded? What about other Android phones that I have?

Update roulette
I’ve amassed quite a collection of Android phones over the years. Some are review units I’ve been allowed to keep, some I picked up while attending the annual Google I/O developer event, and some I’ve purchased (my policy is that any phone I use regularly, I buy). Here’s an inventory of units I have at hand and their status:

HTC Dream / Android 1.6: Actually, this is the Google I/O developer edition phone that was given out by Google itself at Google I/O 2009, with specs the same as the HTC Dream. My understanding from Google is that it will never be updated over-the-air beyond where it’s at now. I believe that’s also the case for those with branded HTC Dream phones.

Nexus One / Android 2.3.6: This is the original in the Google Nexus line, and I received it when attending the
Nexus One launch event in January 2010.

HTC Evo 4G: / Android 2.3.3: I received this Sprint phone when I attended Google I/O 2010. It appears not to be on HTC’s list for upgrading to Android 4.

Droid Charge / Android 2.3.6 : My first Verizon 4G LTE phone, which I purchased last June. It’s not on Samsung’s list of phones to be upgraded.

Droid Bionic / Android 2.3.4: A review unit that I’m about to send back to Motorola. I never did a review of the phone, primarily because it wasn’t running the latest version of Android and I didn’t feel I could do a decent review versus phones like the
Galaxy Nexus or the iPhone 4S that do have the latest versions of their operating systems. The Droid Bionic isn’t due to get Android 4 until the third quarter of this year.

Nexus S / Android 4.0.4: I purchased this phone with Sprint last year, though I no longer use it day-to-day nor have a Sprint account. It got the Android 4 update in April, four months after the software shipped on the Galaxy Nexus.

ATT Galaxy S II Skyrocket / Android 2.3.6: One of the two Android phones that I use on a day-to-day basis, I purchased it only a few months ago. It’s on the list to get upgraded, but there’s no set date.

Galaxy Nexus / Android 4.0.4: The latest in the Nexus line, I purchased mine to use as one of my two main Android phones in January 2012. It’s running the most up-to-date version of Android.

The sorry state of Android updates
After taking a look at that inventory, it’s clear the state of Android updates is pretty pathetic. There’s an excellent chance the Galaxy S III will arrive before my Galaxy S II gets updated to Android 4. The Droid Bionic is not likely to get Android 4 before Apple ships iOS 6 and perhaps an entirely new iPhone. My Nexus S — a Google-branded phone — took four months to get the latest version of Android, which was insane.

If I weren’t so involved in technology writing, and thus constantly upgrading my phones, it’s likely that I’d still have only my Droid Charge midway through a two-year contract and no hope of ever jumping from Android 2 to Android 4.

In contrast, consider that the iPhone 3G that I still have, my original iPhone bought in 2008, is running iOS 4. It’ll never get upgraded past that, but it’s also a four-year-old phone that kept up with the latest iOS releases until last year. That’s much better than Android phones I have that are only a year or two old and seem likely to never jump beyond Android 2. My oldest Android phone, still one year younger than my iPhone 3G, will never leave Android 1.6 unless I try manually “rooting” an upgrade myself.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 4 that I swapped for an iPhone 4S is hanging in there with the current version of iOS 5, despite coming up on two years old. I fully expect it will be able to upgrade to iOS 6, when that comes out.

But does old matter?
Now for the reality check. I used the Nexus One, one of the oldest phones in the bunch listed above, on a trip back to the U.K. last month. Despite the phone’s age, and despite its running only Android 2, it had the following features, which let me do the following things:

My Nexus One, still ticking along

  • E-mail app to send and receive e-mail
  • Browser to browse the Web
  • Twitter app to tweet
  • Facebook app to share on Facebook
  • Google+ app to share on Google+
  • Instagram app to share photos
  • Foursquare app to check in and get local information
  • Camera app to shoot pictures and video
  • Kindle app to read
  • Map app to find locations and GPS navigate to them
  • Clock to set an alarm
  • Calendar to check my schedule
  • SMS to send text messages
  • Wi-Fi hotspot to share my mobile Internet connection with my computer

What exactly was I missing by the operating system being so old? Nothing, really. The phone did just as much as my top-of-the-line Galaxy Nexus. It did just as much as my top-of-the-line iPhone 4S, for that matter. Sure, the pictures and video were lower-resolution, though not that remarkably noticeable. Aside from that, it wasn’t like I was struggling to carry on my mobile life as normal.

That’s the reality check that can go missing when looking at update figures. People are clearly still able to use their phones despite not having the latest version of Android. 

Is the killer app not an app?
The reality check also applies to another embarrassing figure, from Flurry Analytics, that shows  developers still seem to favor iOS to Android.

MG Siegler had an excellent post yesterday about this, rightly taking Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt to task over his prediction that by now developers would be favoring Android over iOS. That clearly doesn’t seem to be the case. But while the start-up developers Siegler talks to each week may be saying iOS first, Android later if ever, most of those start-up developers, I’d say, are making applications few will ever use, and few will miss if they don’t show up on Android.

I can’t recall anyone I’ve talked to about phones who said they got one for a specific application. I’m sure there are some who do this, of course. But how common is it?

When I talk with ordinary people, the reasons they upgrade to a particular phone seem to be things like the low cost to upgrade, the size of the phone, the color of the phone, or just the overall ease of using the phone. That’s where the iPhone seems to win; people like it because it’s easy to use. The iPhone also wins as an upgrade because people I know want to have the latest one, period.

But people avoiding Android because they couldn’t get an app? Instagram shows that’s not a barrier to adoption. It took forever for Instagram to come to Android, yet Android grew despite this.

Personally, I find it odd that Android continues to grow when I still find the iPhone’s iOS to be a more pleasant operating system. The only thing that keeps me from using my iPhone 4S even more is the lack of a 4G LTE connection and the built-in Google Maps navigation offered on the iPhone. But that’s me. Others are different, and others clearly do use Android despite all the supposed “wrongs” with it. There are no wrong phones, if you’re happy with what you use.

One of my favorite reality check moments is when I go to some school event and look at what all the other parents are carrying as phones, while we wait for an assembly to begin. Two weeks ago, I counted three iPhones and three Android phones in my row. Developers be damned; Android upgrade delays be damned; pundits be damned. Half that row was using Android.

Controlled fragmentation
That doesn’t excuse Google or its carrier and handset partners for the poor performance in getting Android updates out. When so many relatively new Android phones are behind in being updated, Google looks bad, and it should look bad, especially a year after an initiative that was supposed to make things better. But actual Android users might not care. As long as their phones keep doing what they expect their phones to do, Android 2 or Android 4, they carry on.

As for Apple, the rumors of the new iPhone that’s larger than the current one may allow Apple to have that killer app that’s not an app: more variety in form factor. You want a bigger iPhone? Maybe you can have it. Want a smaller one? Stay with the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S. Need a lower-cost phone? There’s the iPhone 3GS.

For all the “fragmentation” worries raised about Android, the advantage has been that the fragmentation allowed a thousand Android devices to bloom (and a handful of those to flower into big hits). Think of Apple’s rumored devices as a study in controlled fragmentation. More variety, more choice, yet a consistent experience across them all. That might be the real killer app.

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19 May 12 Android this week: Hot home screens; more Nexus partners; Galaxy S III pre-orders

Even with manufacturer “skins”, Android tablet home screens haven’t been much more useful than those on Android smartphones, even though the slates have larger displays. One third-party software developer wants to change that and it’s using Kickstarter to fund the effort. A $5 pledge will get you a copy of Chameleon; an intelligent, customizable home screen app for Android tablets.

What makes Chameleon unique — aside from what’s essentially a “pre-sale” to guarantee money for the developer up front — is the superb customization it offers for Android tablet home screens. Think of Android widgets, which are of course, great by themselves; but on steroids. The entire screen can be used to show information from social networks, weather apps, your music player of choice and more. You customize what you want to see.

Even better: Chameleon can change the home screen contents based on where you are or what time of day it is. So you could create a morning profile for home, for example, with your personal preferences. When the tablet senses you’re in the office later in the day then, it could show home screen data that’s relevant to your job. The idea is smartly based on the observation that tablet users typically open up the same groups of apps at certain places and times. I love the concept and backed the project with my own $5 pledge, just in case Chameleon later appears in Google Play at a higher price. Here’s a demo video to illustrate what the app will do.

I was so impressed by the app demo that I tweeted “Google should buy this company, immediately!” Maybe that’s too much enthusiasm though and besides; Google seems to be busy at the moment: This week a report surfaced that Google will alter its Nexus device program with more hardware partners.

This is a major change from the prior three years as Google has chosen one hardware maker per Nexus device to showcase Android. HTC built the Nexus One while Samsung delivered both the Nexus S and the Galaxy Nexus. With Android 5.0, also known as “Jelly Bean”, Google could offer a range of Nexus devices from HTC, Samsung, LG, Acer, Asus and others. Part of this strategy is to offset any partner concerns with Google’s proposed purchase of Motorola. But I suspect this also about doing exactly what I asked Google to do earlier this month: Take more control over Android. And like the $399 Galaxy Nexus available through Google Play, Google is expected to sell these new devices directly to customers.

Although Samsung is one of those Android partners that could help Google sell its own devices,  the company continues to dominate the Android scene with solid smartphones of its own.

The highly anticipated Galaxy S III already has 9 million pre-orders from network operators around the world and Samsung can only produce 5 million per month. With 290 carriers in 140 countries vying for Samsung’s latest, it’s possible that some regions will be waiting for months to get the device. I wouldn’t expect Apple-like lines around stores to get a Galaxy S III, but I do anticipate a long, slow global rollout similar to the prior model.

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28 Apr 12 Android this week: $399 Galaxy Nexus; Metro UI vs Android; Kindle Fire rules

Next week the talk of the Android world is likely to be Samsung’s new Galaxy S III, but this week kicked off with a $399 Galaxy Nexus. The GSM handset — which works on both T-Mobile’s and ATT’s voice and data networks — is now available directly from Google. The company added a new Devices tab to the Google Play website where people can purchase the Android 4.0 smartphone.

Google attempted direct smartphone sales in January of 2010 with its Nexus One phone, but the effort wasn’t a raging success in the U.S. where carriers have the upper hand. The operators pay a large portion of the device cost directly to the handset maker and then make up the difference (and more) in lengthy voice and data plan contracts. Google has no wireless service to offer, so at that time, the $529 Nexus One was typically bought by geeks such as myself. (I still have the phone and I certainly got my money’s worth out of it.)

At $399, the Galaxy Nexus might gain a little more traction with mainstream consumers, but it’s likely that the same geeks interested in the prior model are the bigger audience. The phone appeals because of it’s dual-network capability, pure Android 4.0 experience and — perhaps most importantly — isn’t controlled by the carriers. Google will push software updates direct to the GSM Galaxy Nexus, meaning they’ll be sent quicker as there is no carrier testing or customization involved. The phone also includes Google Wallet pre-installed; notable as Verizon’s Galaxy Nexus handset doesn’t support the service.

While folks debate if the Nexus is a good deal at $399, another debate is rising: Will Microsoft be successful with its Metro UI? The answer to that question could affect Android device sales in the future. Microsoft is following Apple’s lead with a more consistent user experience between traditional and mobile computing.

Apple is bringing iOS elements and mobile data into Mac OS X while Microsoft is using the Metro UI — first seen on Windows Phone — to Windows 8. That could create a halo-like effect for Windows users who turn to Windows Phone in lieu of Android. Google still has an opportunity to merge systems of its own: ChromeOS is still maturing and Google could work to do some merging between it and Android. I’ll be looking to Google’s I/O developer conference next month to look for clues that might suggest just such a strategy.

Speaking of strategy, Amazon’s seems to be working well when it comes to Android. The Kindle Fire is reportedly outselling all other Android tablets combined. That’s an amazing feat for a device that’s roughly 6 months old.

The data hit this week from ComScore, with Amazon accounting for an estimated 54.4 percent of all Android tablet sales in the U.S. Part of the reason has to be the low $199 cost, while another is the lack of a monthly data plan needed, since the Kindle Fire is a Wi-Fi only device. And the range of easy-to-access content is a another likely factor. It may not be a pure tablet to some, but for many, the Kindle Fire is the only Android tablet they need.

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08 Apr 12 Google Readying 7-Inch Tablet for Late Summer Release

Google has come a long way since it launched its first Android consumer device, the Nexus One, with HTC back in January 2010, in its first attempt to compete with the Apple iPhone.

Well, that one crashed and burned. Verizon veered away and eventually decided to stick with the iPhone and (eventually) other Android phones, performance complications set in, and the Nexus One quickly faded into oblivion.

Google can be forgiven, certainly. Few companiesespecially those working in new markets for the first timehit home runs as soon as they step into the batter’s box. Since then, of course, companies such as HTC, Motorola, Lenovo and others have come up with popular Android-powered smartphones, and the Nexus One now is merely a collector’s item.

A major issue with its sales, it turned out, was that the Nexus One was made available only via online order, and not in retail stores. The look, feel and responsiveness of any phone obviously can’t be experienced until the device is actually in the user’s hands. As a result, a high percentage of the Nexus Ones were returned to HTC and Google when they didn’t live up to users’ expectations.

In fairness, as the first Google phone out of the box, the Nexus One taught the company a great deal about the phone business, and subsequent models (Nexus S and S2, Nexus Galaxy) have been much more successful.

Second Try at a Co-Branded Smart Device

Two and a half years later, Google is doing it againthis time with a tablet PC. This first one will be a co-branded (with Asustek Computer of Taiwan) Android device that is expected to become available near the end of this summerlate July or August.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt let it slip to an Italian newspaper last December that the company would have a tablet “in six months.” Well, the project is pretty much on schedule after all. Device Website The Verge reported April 6 that Google originally planned to launch the tablet next month but decided to push it back because the device was becoming too expensive.

In order for any device to compete with the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle Fire, a lower price is going to have to be the main attraction, and Google knows it. Google opted to spend a few more months modifying the tablet to bring the price down, the site reported.

The company’s product team is making these design changes now with the goal to drop the price at least $50 below the original retail tag of $249, so it can compete directly with the Kindle Fire (same 7-inch size, $199).

7-inch Screen, Ice Cream Sandwich OS

The Google WiFi-only tablet (pictured) features a 7-inch screen and an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor. It is powered by Google’s Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system.

Google’s co-branding strategy with Asustek in Android tablets may indicate that other Far Eastern device manufacturers also will be working with the company in the future, including Samsung Electronics, Acer and others.

Editor’s note: This story has been augmented to add more background about the entire Google Nexus phone product line.

Chris Preimesberger is eWEEK Editor for Features and Analysis. Twitter: @editingwhiz

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