The Silver Age of Android

Android 4.4.2 KitKat
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6 May 2014 | 0

Google’s Nexus line of smartphones is being discontinued later this year bringing an end to a modestly successful partnership with LG. Despite not attaining the object of desire status of Samsung’s Galaxy range, the Nexus served as a developer friendly lab for showing off clean versions of Android without the bespoke apps and user interfaces slapped on top of it by manufacturers.

What Android has always done well in convenience it has suffered from in fragmentation. Be it through different versions running across product lines or failure to get the most recent versions to market lest it hold up a product release. Android has been a boon to mobile but a pain to manage, suffering from the kind of security issues iOS and Windows mobile doesn’t (yet). Samsung’s Galaxy S III was not a roaring success because of Android, it was because of its entire package or hardware and software.

So how does Google put out a vanilla range of smartphones with decent hardware and an uncluttered user experience. The original strategy was to go with partnerships. When Android came to market it was on HTC handsets that despite competent design lacked the brand muscle and coherent strategy of Samsung, who could afford to do Android their own way. In a side note it’s worth mentioning that HTC still makes some of the best Android smartphones out there – the One, for example – but has failed to capitalise on its first to market position.

Google launched the first Nexus handset in 2010 in partnership with HTC, before flirting with Samsung in 2011 and LG in 2012, when Asus was selected as a hardware partner in 2012 for the Nexus tablet range.

Turning point
The year 2012 is notable not just because Google switched hardware partners, but for acquiring one. When Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion in 2012 it looked like the Nexus had found a neutral home.

With Samsung gobbling up a 63% share of all handsets running the open source operating system, it made sense for Google to be seen as a neutral party to Android growth. Buying a smaller player with a competent manufacturing base made good business sense, having one in-house even more so.

Alas, it didn’t work out that way. Aimed at the mid-market the Moto G did well in emerging markets like India but its cousin, the Moto X became a $700 million dud in the US. Google is now in the process of selling Motorola Mobility to Lenovo for $2.9 billion.

So with the Motorola albatross flying away, how does Android get a neutral champion? Simple, it goes back to what worked, only with fresh packaging.
According to reports in the Financial Times, Google is focusing on hardware partnerships only this time using a vanilla Android install and multiple partners as selling points. Again, Android as it’s meant to be. Google is calling this umbrella category ‘Android Silver’ which refers not to a version of the mobile OS, more its position as a market standard, ideally sold in sectioned off areas of your local mobile phone outlet.

Without an in-house hardware developer it’s easy to see the selling points of this approach. Android powers 37.75% of the mobile devices on the planet (smartphones and tablets) according to the latest data from Net Applications and with Apple not due to refresh its mobile devices until September, now is a good time for a ‘unifying force’. It also shows that Google has stopped worrying about hardware fragmentation. With Silver it knows there will be an ‘untainted’ user experience out there, should the demand be there for it.

But will the general public be bothered? It depends how well the marketing works. Bloatware is a common gripe with smartphones and Silver could be a solution that lets manufacturers position their existing offerings ‘for the rest of us’. Developers and the tech savvy will enjoy the additional customisability and the removal of interfaces like HTC’s Sense.

Thanks to Silver Android will have a benchmark with appeal for all sides of the market. That’s a vote of confidence from this quarter.

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