The forthcoming Google "Nexus One" smartphone could weaken the Android smartphone operating system by further complicating purchase decisions for business and personal customers. Not all Android phones are alike, and that creates a problem.
The HTC-made "Googlephone," now being tested by Google employees, may represent another fracture in the already fractured world of Android, the Google-written open source operating system for wireless handsets, most notably the Motorola Droid (at least so far).
Each fracture, created when a smartphone vendor goes off in their own direction, makes Android a more difficult purchase, as well as more difficult to develop applications for.
In short: The Android world is becoming more and more confused.
Industry-watcher Charlie Wolf, writing in an investment analysis released Monday morning, commented on this topic:
"Android has won high praise for the Google applications embedded in its user interface. And the platform has been hailed as potentially the dominant operating system in the smartphone market because of the lineup of smartphone manufacturers who are building phones for it. However, it's an open question whether Android will live up to its promise because of the inherent contradictions embodied in the platform. In particular, Android is open source,
"Smartphone manufacturers have a powerful incentive to differentiate their phones and avoid the commoditization that characterized the PC industry. But such splintering could limit serious application development, preventing Android from emerging as a recognizable and leading brand in the smartphone space."
Wolf, a financial analyst for Needham & Co., has long been one of my heroes. His report, downloadable as a PDF, talks about all the major smartphone players. In it, he describes the significant downside of being open source and how it could turn supposed freedom into a disadvantage.
"The appeal of open source lies in the freedom of software developers, smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers to modify the source code of the operating system. And, as initial versions of Android phones demonstrate, the smartphone vendors have every incentive to do so in order to differentiate their phones from others running on the Android platform. For example, Motorola sells it customized user interface as 'MotoBlur' while HTC markets its user interface as 'Sense.'"
The downside of this, as the Googlephone may further demonstrate, is that the freedom of smartphone manufacturers to modify the Android code has created significant hurdles for application software developers.
"Unlike the iPhone where a software application can be written once and run seamlessly on all versions of the iPhone, most software applications written for Android have to be customized for each smartphone. This limits the addressable market of an application to that of an individual smartphone rather than the Android platform itself," Wolf wrote.
Wolf also points out that because of the differences in implementation, and marketing needs of handset vendors, carriers, and Google itself, many customers may not even be aware they are purchasing an Android-powered phone.
This could further limit applications development and sales of those applications that are created.
Wolf makes an excellent case that Android and even the Googlephone may pose no great threat to Apple and, especially, to BlackBerry as a smartphone platform of choice for business.