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The Google Experience [Opinion]

With the release of the Nexus 7, Google set its sights on Amazon to try and reclaim control of the Android tablet space. Ever since Amazon forked Android for the Kindle Fire there has been some confusion about what OEM software customization means. There seems to be some confusion in the industry about what TouchWiz and Sense really are. More and more often I have seen articles arguing that the Galaxy S III and the Kindle Fire offer the same non-Google experience. Even more shocking, I’ve heard arguments that AOSP is Android and the Nexus line of phones offers the “Google experience.” The question isn’t whether or not OEMs offer a Google experience (they do); the question is if they’ll keep a Google experience.

The idea of “Google experience” devices has existed for a long time. Early android devices that provided a sanctioned Google experience were labeled on the back of the device with the phrase “with Google.” In time, this label disappeared, but the notion that some devices offered an explicitly sanctioned experience by Google did not. In fact, the mess that Google, Motorola, and Samsung encountered with the Skyhook lawsuit revealed much more about the approval process for Android devices than any of the companies involved probably intended. From that litigation we learned that every Google device has to receive approval directly from Google before it can be sold with Google apps. In other words, Google has the power to reject devices if they want to. While the approval process may seem like nothing more than a formality, the Skyhook litigation demonstrated that Google has more intentions than simply letting any Android device get sold with Google apps. Because Samsung and Motorola tried to use Skyhook for GPS data instead of Google’s own location data, some Android devices were delayed while others had major GPS issues. Google also had to give special approval for the original Galaxy Tab to be shipped with Google apps because Google did not want tablets to run any version of Android (Honeycomb wasn’t out, yet).

When Amazon launched the Kindle Fire, and even before that the Amazon Appstore, Amazon set out to create their own experience with Android apart from Google. Their separate experience was more than just a skin on top of Android; it was a fork. Amazon took Android 2.3 and made something totally different for the Amazon Kindle Fire (much like the ill-fated Grid 10 and Grid 4 from Fusion Garage). With their own app store, media distribution, and hardware, Amazon was able to release a product that was completely removed from the Google experience. To try and compare what Amazon did with what Samsung is doing with the Galaxy S III is asinine. While Samsung offers movies and music, Samsung does not have their own app store. The presence of Google Play, Gmail, and other Google apps means that Google sanctions this Android experience. At best, you could say that the Samsung Galaxy S III offers both a Google experience and a Samsung experience, but you cannot say that the device offers only a Samsung experience.

I understand what people are trying to say when they claim that Samsung is offering their own experience akin to the Fire. Each company is trying to carve out their own little empire and they’re trying to do that through Android. The problem is, none of them have been bold enough to do what Amazon did: make an app store and try to market their devices without Google’s help. That said, there could be a time where a manufacturer like Samsung or HTC would try to use the Amazon app store as the stock App Store in on their device instead of the Google Play store. If Google actually wants to take control of Android, that’s going to mean being much more particular about which devices get the Google experience. The problem is, Google is undoubtedly worried that some OEMs will turn Amazon if Google gets more picky. It’s hard to tell if Google is simply biding their time, or simply doesn’t want to go down that road. Perhaps Google is fine with the chaotic experiences that Android manufacturers are putting on phones as long as Play is still on every device.

When Google bought Motorola it was theorized that Google was trying to avoid Motorola suing other OEMs, which would have been a nightmare for Google. Perhaps the real nightmare would be Google having to convince OEMs to use the Play store instead of Amazon’s Appstore. Google appears to already be trying to convince manufacturers to not fork Android by expanding the Nexus program, but with their agreement to keep AOSP free and open for five years manufacturers could be a thorn in Google’s side.

If I were running an Android OEM, I would think very carefully before switching from Google’s ecosystem to Amazon’s. Chances are most OEMs don’t want to leave Google’s fold because of the security it offers. Google is dedicated to making Android better with every release and the Play Store features many more apps than Amazon’s Appstore (plus the only way to get Google’s apps is to follow Google’s rules). Is Google scared that some OEMs will use Amazon’s ecosystem instead of Google’s? If so, what can they do to guarantee that they will stay in Google’s ecosystem? Perhaps being a part of the Nexus program is agreeing to only release Android devices within Google’s ecosystem. Most have assumed that expanding the Nexus program was about assuaging concerns that Google is going to favor Motorola, but maybe for Google it is a way to ensure that manufacturers stick with Google’s ecosystem instead of Amazon’s.

If Amazon is preparing to launch a phone as well and that phone is successful (which I highly doubt), OEMs might be more tempted to switch to Amazon’s ecosystem for more control over their product (TouchWiz, Sense, etc.). Maybe that is also why Google hasn’t cracked down on skins, because they want to ensure OEMs are happy with Google. If Google’s aim is to use Android as a mechanism to keep putting Google services, and therefore ads in front of people, Google probably doesn’t care about the multiplicity of Android experiences out there. I have a feeling, however, that Andy Rubin and Matias Duarte want to do more with Android than that. I also have a feeling that Page and Brin want more than that. Android is Google’s future, and I think Google wants to make it the best version of the future possible. By expanding the Nexus program, maybe Google hopes that more users will opt for Google’s experience, pushing OEMs to continue to tone down skins or get rid of them altogether so that only a pure Google experience for Android remains.

Of course, all of this is just speculation at this point, but one thing is clear: Google is gunning to make the Kindle Fire obsolete, and perhaps Amazon’s ecosystem with it. When Amazon first released their Appstore I didn’t think much of it. I still don’t use it because most apps are released on the Play Store and I don’t want to manage two stores with separate updates. Hopefully the Nexus 7 and its successors will continue to push Amazon out of the smartphone and tablet market, giving Google the space and control it needs to take on Apple (and perhaps Microsoft) in the tablet space.

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