Mobile World Congress 2009 has come to a close, and as far as most Android fans are concerned, it was a pretty big disappointment. Billed by many as a “coming out party” for Android, with no shortage of high expectations for unveiling of new handsets, the Barcelona event ended not with a bang, but a whimper. There were a handful of chipset and software announcements, and only one new functioning handset was shown – which is destined for Europe. As far as I’m concerned, Chinese ODMs showing non-functional handsets under glass don’t count. Whining that “we’re working on it” or “we’re not late, we just never intended to announce at this show” doesn’t count either, nor do scribbles in some booth jockey’s notebook. Unfortunately, these were the only headlines that comprised over 1,000 Android-related articles that crossed my feedreader in the last five days.
Few would debate that Android has no shortage of potential. Some bloggers have claimed it stands a chance to unseat the majestic iPhone, and others have asserted that Android has Microsoft running scared and clamoring to hold onto its market share. But potential is just that – and in the fast-paced, compressed time-to-market world of mobile phones, potential can siphon down the drain with frightening speed. If Google really mean business with Android, they need to get it onto a major US carrier’s network.
There were plenty of high-hopes (my own included) that an announcement – or even a rumor – along those lines would hit the wire this week at MWC. I have no doubt that thousands of other eager-eyed early adopters were scanning the headlines right alongside me, searching for any mention of Android in the same breath as Verizon or AT&T. But none came, and MWC ended leaving the tech-heads wondering just what the holdup is. Are the phone manufacturers throwing enough resources at Android integration? Are the carriers resisting the super-flexible but, ultimately, freedom-laced OS? Is Google’s support of OEMs falling short? Maybe the tough economy is putting a pinch on Android budgets. Or maybe all the industry players are waiting for each other’s next move…
I’m no product strategist, but I’ve managed to be involved with at least a few product launches in my short engineering career. I know how much effort goes into bringing a product to market: it’s easy to get 98% of the way there, but the effort to achieve the last 2% of market-readiness is exponentially higher. That’s where Google is today: they’ve got a product that’s on the cusp of being ready, if only their customers (the handset manufacturers, not the end users!) would take it and run. As the poor Android showing at MWC this week has demonstrated, if this symbiosis is happening, it’s not happening fast enough.
When Google released Android as an open-source stack, they short-circuited a lot of the closed-ness of the mobile phone world. They opened up opportunities for developers, phone manufacturers, carriers and end-users alike … so long as the gift was received, incubated, used and released to the market. But in a market this fast-moving, I believe that’s not happening quickly enough to insure Android’s survival.
It’s time for Google to short-circuit the status quo once again: It’s time for Google to start releasing Android builds for popular phone hardware that’s already out in the wild, already in the hands of early-adopters, and (most importantly) already certified to operate on the major carriers’ networks. No, this probably wouldn’t be kosher. Granted, it might not even be possible given the image-signing requirements of many handsets. Yes, it would probably require the users to break something that’s spelled out in fine print somewhere. Yes, people’s warranties might even be voided. Hell, if the Android image was intended to run on a certain shiny messiah-phone, it might even require a little risque jailbreaking. But would it be worth it?
Let’s just say, if our friends in Mountain View ever did unleash an Android image for a mass-market, major-carrier smartphone, I’d be first in line to buy one and make it my daily-driver. I’m sure there’d be a lot of others in line behind me, too.