Could Android’s growing dominance of the smartphone market also be its downfall?

December 09, 2012

A woman talks on her phone in front of an advertisement promoting Samsung Electronics’ Galaxy Camera at the company’s headquarters in Seoul November 29, 2012. — Reuters picA woman talks on her phone in front of an advertisement promoting Samsung Electronics’ Galaxy Camera at the company’s headquarters in Seoul November 29, 2012. — Reuters picLOS ANGELES, Dec 9 — If Google doesn’t take tighter control of its operating system, Android’s current success could ultimately lead to a host of problems.

On the surface, IDC’s latest figures should be a cause for celebration at Google. Published this week, they show that 68.2 per cent of all smartphones shipped in 2012 will run Google’s Android operating system, knocking Apple into a distant second, and that Android will continue to build on its position as the dominant smartphone platform for the next four years. The research firm estimates that even with increased competition from Apple and Microsoft, Android will be running on 63.8 per cent of handsets worldwide by 2016.

However, what the figures don’t show is what version of Android these smartphones were shipped with, or what version of the operating system they will be running in four years’ time.

Google also published its own Android usage figures this week, and while the number of devices running Jellybean, the latest incarnation of the operating system, has more than doubled over the last month, the figures also highlight that 65.6 per cent of Android’s 500 million+ users are still stuck on a version that’s anywhere between 18 months and three-and-a-half years out of date. Many users will never be able to upgrade, unless they’re prepared to buy a new handset, and even then there is no guarantee that the handset they buy will support the latest version of the OS.

Unless the majority of users are running the most up-to-date version of Android, developing new apps and improving services and features, as well as protecting against malware will become an increasingly difficult task.

It is this problem that led Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to describe Android’s apps ecosystem as “wild”, “uncontrolled” and susceptible to malware in a November 14 interview with Reid Hoffman. It is also why the LG Nexus, the latest Google-branded smartphone is constantly sold out since its launch in November. The Nexus branding is the only guarantee users have that the handset is running the latest version of the software, and that it will receive timely software updates as they become available.

If app developers are constrained by the limitations of the handsets, they may feel they have no choice but to leave the ecosystem in favor of Apple or Microsoft. Google is working with its partners to expedite timely upgrades, but not all devices can support newer versions of Android and this issue is set to get worse.

In its October 23 report, NPD Group highlighted that by 2016, cheap Android phones could make up as much as 29 per cent of the world smartphone market. It found that shipments of sub-US$150 (RM450) handsets have been doubling year-on-year since 2010 and the trend looked set to continue until 2016 when shipments are expected to hit 311 million. “Most mobile phone subscribers around the world can’t afford to spend more than US$200 for a smartphone, on top of their service plans,” noted Shawn Lee, Research Director at NPD DisplaySearch. “Low-cost smartphone manufacturers create these new products quickly without much investment, which has allowed them to extend their telecom subscriber base to emerging regions.”

And of course, the best way to produce a cheap Android phone is to use an older version of the operating system to run on a lower-powered processor with less RAM. So, in four years’ time the situation could have reached the point where Android has become a fragmented regional, rather than global, smartphone operating system, with separate app stores and phone features in every country to support handsets potentially running eight different variations of the same software. — AFP/Relaxnews