There has been a lot of speculation surrounding Google’s purchase of Motorola and the rumor that Google will partner with five manufacturers for the Nexus project. There seem to be signs that things are changing around the way Google controls Android. Google needs the phone manufacturers and the carriers to ensure that handsets get into consumers’ hands, but the tug of war between OS vendor, OEM, and carrier hasn’t been pretty.
In the past I have argued that Google should block services from carrier branded Nexus devices to assert their control and that Google should use Motorola to control its own Android devices instead of relying on manufacturers to assert control over Android. Some have argued that Google’s purchase of Motorola probably got other OEMs worried that Motorola would be favored, hence the new rumored Nexus deal to appease manufacturers. Dan Frommer argued that Google might offer three versions of Android: Nexus (stock, Google controlled), Motorola (Google hardware and software with special Motorola-only features from Google and Motorola), and OEM (Android as most humans know it with carrier branding and skins). This sort of move, however, might push manufacturers and carriers to team up and use a forked version of Android (especially now that Google has agreed to keep Android open and free for five years), which would mean that Google had lost complete control of Android. In fact, because of the tensions between Google, OEMs, and carriers, Charlie Kindel (former Microsoft employee of 21 years and general manager of the Windows Phone Developer Program) believes that Google has lost control of Android and will instead begin pursuing the Play brand instead of Android.
Kindel offers four options for Google to pursue to regain control of Android: investing in the Nexus brand, pushing OEMs to upgrade their devices, block Google services from devices that don’t meet Google’s requirements, or switching to a closed source model of Android. Kindel believes that investing in the Nexus brand would be good for consumers, but probably wouldn’t result in more sales than branded and skinned devices. Google can try to demand that OEMs upgrade their devices to the latest version of Android, but that’s easier said than done. Google can’t simply block Google services because there are too many alternatives. Google had the opportunity to switch to a closed source model of Android before the Motorola deal closed, but even if they had, ICS is already out in the world for anyone to take for free and fork.
In short, Kindel doesn’t see how Google can control Android without upsetting manufacturers. What Kindel couldn’t forsee was Google offering the Nexus program to multiple manufacturers. Google’s main concern isn’t that manufacturers are skinning Android and making all sorts of random devices. Google’s concern is that Android needs to be updated everywhere quickly to ensure that apps are using the latest APIs and to minimize security concerns. Manufacturers are beginning to scale back this year, having realized that a clear product brand and fewer devices will sell better. Samsung’s Galaxy brand has served it well, so HTC is trying again with the One series. Even more importantly, manufacturers like Samsung are pushing back against the carriers this time by making every US carrier call the Galaxy S III by its maiden name, not some carrier specific name.
Google realizes that it needs to choose its battles wisely. While Google may have a very specific vision for what Android should look like, it can’t get that vision out there without the OEMs and the carriers. OEMs don’t want to make stock devices because they want to differentiate themselves and because carriers want special devices. But what happens if Google gives the OEMs something the carriers can’t offer? If Google gives more manufacturers access to the newest version of Android sooner, manufacturers can update their devices faster as market pressure pushes them to make fewer devices. Google wants to shift power away from the carriers towards Google and the OEMs.
In this three way tug-of-war, Google needed an ally. Google thought they were making friends with the carriers, but got burned with more carrier specific devices (which slows updates) and delays from the carriers on Google’s own device. Because of carrier’s push for power, Google is shifting control back to themselves and OEMs. If OEMs have the latest version of Android faster then they can update their devices faster. They’ll still have to wait for carrier approval, but that will be the biggest delay. Google also gets the opportunity to expand its version of Android with more stock devices that they can sell directly to consumers in the Play store.
Google and the manufacturers need power to shift in their direction. The delays in the Galaxy Nexus getting updating prove that. Kindel believes that Google has lost control of Android, but I really think they’re regaining it by shifting power towards themselves and OEMs. As I said before, the carriers need Google and the manufacturers, not the other way around. The launch of the Galaxy S III under one name on all major carriers signals that need. The carriers know that people want those devices, so they want to ensure they keep subscribers. As the cost of unlocked phones continues to drop, leaving a contract is becoming much easier. Google wants to use that to their advantage with their own fleet of Nexus devices sold directly to consumers. By partnering with manufacturers to ensure that they get what they need, Google is taking back control of Android.