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Why the Android ecosystem isn’t like Windows

One of the most often-repeated statements about the competition between iOS and Android in mobile phones is that Android is bound to win because it’s following the same model as Windows did in “winning” the PC market. An operating system, licensed to all-comers, with a range of hardware makers all competing should (the theory goes) drive down costs and increase innovation, just as happened in the PC market.

There’s only one problem: The way the Android ecosystem works is nothing like the Windows market.

In the PC market, Dell didn’t get to build its own customised version of Windows, then make its customers wait to get an update – if it supplied one at all.

When a new version of Windows came out, you didn’t have to rely on Dell to get it – you just bought it, direct from Microsoft. You might have to download some drivers, if they weren’t included (for generic PCs, they often were). But that was often from the maker of the particular affected components, not Dell.

In the Android world, if you have (say) an HTC phone you can’t get an update from Google. You have to wait for HTC to provide it – and they have little incentive to create it in a timely manner. Neither do they have the resources: they’re operating on slimmer margins than Google, and don’t have the software chops. They didn’t make Android, they just tinkered with it. And working out what breaks their tinkering in a stock Android update isn’t always trivial.

What Google has created is in danger of ending up far more like the world of Linux: disparate, fractured “distributions” which are semi-compatible as long as a volunteer geek has taken the time and trouble to port, test and package whatever software you want.

It’s not too late to change this, but Google has to take more responsibility if it wants Android to be a long-term success.

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