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Android still has some growing up to do, but it's getting there

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May 14, 2013

At first glance, Android appears to be unstoppable to some observers and it is, in a way. Based on the popular Linux open source operating system, Google's mobile OS already enjoys a very important percentage of the mobile operating system in the global wireless industry market.

And it looks like the trend will not only continue in the same direction but experts think it will in fact accelerate and gather even more momentum going forward.

But as anything in life that's beautiful and sexy, it ain't perfect and there's a few pockets of air here and there that could cause some turbulence in the Android atmosphere.

Even Android's new management acknowledges the above remarks in a recent interview, with some casual diplomacy. Android's senior manager Sundar Pichai says-- "But here’s the ultimate challenge: without changing the open nature of Android, how do we help improve the world’s end-user experience?"

Pichai has a point there. Since the departure of Andy Rubin, who founded the Android startup and led its initial development at Google, Android is part of Pichai's Chrome browser empire. Is that a good thing you ask? Nobody knows, at least not yet.

Android today is like Microsoft's Windows version 3.1 was when it came out in 1993-- everybody hated it. They tried working with it but they hated it. Android is the same. Its appeal is utilitarian when you look at it. It drops the user in an app store, there's a broad choice of brand name manufacturers, and it has some good momentum.

Twenty years ago, most people hadn't seen an Archimides, a business-class Amiga or a NeXT workstation. Most business users hadn't even seen a Mac back in those days.

But they knew about DOS, and while Windows was inferior to all the alternatives available at that time, Windows was what got them out of a command line-based world. Apple might have educated the market and introduced the modern smartphone era, but it's Android that's capturing a lot of people.

Or more precisely, Samsung is, since when people think of an Android phone, it's usually the Samsung name that comes to mind it would seem.

And Pichai's emphasis is accurate. People use Android in spite of the end user experience, not because of it. The user experience is sub-optimal whether it's at the luxury end of the scale or at the most basic level.

At the higher end, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is typically incoherent. "Two online video and music stores, two music and video players, two calendars and two browsers," notes the Wall Street Journal. Several are "poor duplicates of existing Google offerings", we noted. And the WSJ is correct on that observation.

At the lower-end of the market, Android gets very gruesome. Low cost hardware can't really run Ice Cream Sandwich well, while 45 percent of Android devices still run Gingerbread, or lower.

Where Android is most successful today is in emerging markets, since many are still running 2G, where they deliver a terrible experience, often deprived completely of any Google services.

However, it's been proven over and over that consumer's tastes change all the time and can be very finicky, and markets change with them as well. They don't have any other choice than to change and adapt. It's either that, or die of a slow but sure death.

Today, the buying intentions of consumers in the wireless industry are a pure expression of gratitude for their first or second smartphone. But one of the more interesting stats emerged here, from a survey of U.S. buying intentions by the Yankee Group. About 23.4 percent of all Android owners would consider a platform switch. Yes, you read correctly.

That same percentage of the market will soon be switching from 'dumbphones' or feature phones to smartphones, and Yankee predicts that Apple will capture most of that, rather than Microsoft. The warning signs are there. Are you surprised to see them? We didn't think so.

While it's still evident from Android's progress that Google has been working hard to improve the user interface (UI), it is far from clear what it can do about what's called the "user experience" (UX), what it's actually like to use the device in the field as a regular user and the UX is much more than than the UI. Even Microsoft knows that.

The anarchy of Android means that Google can't stop Samsung plastering the phone with their own apps and services. It means they can't stop manufacturers throwing out sub-specced' low-end devices at even lower prices.

It also can't stop Asian factories stripping out anything Googly, and cranking out barely-functional handsets. As Enders analyst Ben Evans points out, Google subsidises Android not because it's in the OS business, but because it's in the data collection business. As long as Google is collecting data, it's happy. Even Google+ is a data collection mechanism, not a social network.

This will continue until the Big Data bubble bursts, and the overwhelming imperative to acquire more data is called into question. That could be when Google's service businesses mature, so it's pocketing real money and not behavioural inferences.

This is already happening, and a lot faster than what most people think. Whatever the case may be, we can't see Google transforming Android into the kind of slick experience you get on an iPhone today. And we're not expecting Android going away any time soon, either.

Microsoft educated the wireless device market into at least one thing: expecting a sub-par user experience. Users might complain, Microsoft said, but they won't switch.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is set to hit store shelves this week. It has a handful of features that would make iPhone owners drool, including a significantly larger screen than Apple's smartphone.

And Apple is facing some tablet pressure as well-- Microsoft's Windows 8 has enabled a new generation of PC-tablet hybrids and Amazon's Kindle Fire has presented a low-cost but still impressive alternative to the iPad.

To be sure, Apple's sales continue to grow, but not nearly at the same clip as a year or two ago, when Apple was doubling its sales every year. Tim Cook said earlier this morning that Apple's slowing sales growth will continue to pressure gross margins in the near term.

In other mobile news

Like just about any other company that cares about its products or the kind of corporate image that its products generate, Microsoft does appreciate some kind of feedback from its customers and the people that use its software.

And that's a good thing. Of course, sometimes this can go a bit out of hand, like it did a few days ago.

Frank Shaw, corporate vice president of corporate communications at Microsoft said this week-- "There is a trend to the extreme."

He was commenting on some of the harsh attacks that the software giant received in relation to Windows 8 and its negative reviews.

Of course, to say that this is the first time we see something like this in relation to a Microsoft product would be a lie. It's not the first time and it sure won't be the last either.

And here's what Shaw added-- "People who want to stand out, opt for sensationalism and hyperbole over nuanced analysis. In this world where page views are currency, heat is often more valued than light. Stark black-and-white caricatures are sometimes more valued than shades-of-gray reality."

After all, his point is well taken. Let's all pause here for a minute and consider the center-stage. In the middle, selling 100 million copies of a product is a good thing. And listening to feedback and improving a product is also a good thing.

So how "extreme" has the criticism been? The Financial Times said the upcoming changes to Windows 8 mark one of the most prominent admissions of failure for a new mass-market consumer product since Coca-Cola's New Coke fiasco nearly 30 years ago."

And the Economist also attacked Microsoft, saying "restoring the Start button will not restore Microsoft to its former glory."

And market research firm IDC recently said-- "There were certain decisions that Microsoft made that were in retrospect flawed. Notably not allowing people to boot into desktop mode and taking away the Start button. Those two things have come up consistently. We've done some research and people miss that."

And IDC continued over the following months to be critical as PC sales stalled. Especially when first-quarter global computer shipments dropped 14 percent from the previous year, much worse than IDC's forecast for a 7.7 percent decline.

It's not like a Start button function is completely absent in Windows 8. For example, the Windows key plus "x" brings up a menu similar to the Start button, replete with a search option. And getting to the Windows 8 desktop is only a matter of clicking "Desktop" on the Metro screen.

Still, if Microsoft got so much criticism in such little time, maybe it's time that it starts paying more attention to what it's customers and users are saying. After all, consumers do have options: Linux or the iMac. Let the people choose what they think is best and let them buy what they like.

In other mobile news

Dish Network is in a heated fight with Japanese wireless carrier SoftBank over whose bid is the best value for Sprint.

However, Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen seems very confident that his company has other options for breaking into the wireless industry should Dish lose out.

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During Dish’s first quarter conference call late yesterday, Ergen suggested that Dish could simply partner with someone else in the wireless industry, sell its mobile spectrum or just sell the company outright.

Following a somewhat disappointing first quarter report that saw customer growth slowing for the satellite-TV provider, Dish’s urgency to diversify its offerings can only be intensifying.

Worse, the AWS spectrum Dish acquired last year carries an FCC-stipulated time restraint. Dish must deploy wireless services on its 20 MHz spectrum which covers about 40 percent of the U.S. within four years, and 70 percent of the country by 2019.

Building a wireless network from scratch could prove too costly and time-consuming for Dish, which makes Sprint an attractive partner for Dish.

Dish’s wireless spectrum lies just above 2 GHz, close enough to be nearly contiguous with the 1900 MHz PCS band in which Sprint is deploying its LTE network.

During the FCC approval process for allowing Dish to deploy a terrestrial network on its AWS spectrum, Sprint contested Dish’s plans for its AWS spectrum for fear that it would interfere with its 1900 MHz G Block as well as with the H Block that could be auctioned off by the FCC in the future.

This week, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son argued that since his company has already deployed TD-LTE in 2.5 GHz, it would be a better suitor for Sprint seeing at Sprint stands to gain access to a lot of 2.5 GHz spectrum should its bid to buyout Clearwire go through.

Dish has repeatedly said in the past few weeks that the value of its $25.5 billion merger offer to Sprint in terms of a multi-play option, bundling wireless service and broadband with TV.

It’s still unclear who Dish could sell its wireless spectrum or its company to if its proposed Sprint merger goes by the wayside, or if any other suitors might be willing to partner with Dish in its efforts to snatch up Sprint from under SoftBank.

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