Google I/O 2010
Part 5: Android 2.2 "Froyo"
While Day 1 of the Google I/O 2010 conference touched on a number of topics, Day 2 focused on just two subjects. But they are both big deals. The first, Android 2.2--codenamed "Froyo"--is a major update to Google's smart phone platform, one that is already outselling Apple's supposedly unassailable iPhone in the US, and will surpass the iPhone worldwide by the end of 2010 or early 2011. Important? You bet.
Google vice president Vic Gundotra opened the keynote with some awkward talk about a party the night before, but thankfully quickly moved to the meat of the presentation. He spoke of meeting smart phone pioneer Andy Rubin on his first day at Google; Rubin, of course, founded Danger, later acquired by Microsoft, and then Android, which was acquired by Google to form the basis for that company's smart phone product line. Gundotra says that he didn't get it, why was Google creating yet another smart phone platform? Google, he said quite correctly, was about advertising. (And I'm amazed he said this so plainly, given how the company prefers to play up its other, unprofitable but more interesting projects.) Shouldn't Google, he asked Rubin, just be on every phone?
Variety is the spice of life
Rubin's response was interesting. He told Gundotra that a free, open smart phone operating system would enable innovation at every level of the stack. Partners would be free to build all kinds of devices, "with keyboards, without keyboards, with front-facing cameras, two inches, three inches, four inches." Mobile operators would be "free to compete on the strength and coverage of their network, 2G, 3G, 4G, LTP, CDMA," whatever. With innovation "coming at every layer," the consumer would benefit by being able to get the best device on the best network for them.
We should step back for one moment here to note that this is exactly the strategy that Microsoft pursued with Windows Mobile. And while Windows Mobile did in fact win the battle it was designed to fight--i.e. to wrest market share away from Palm--it was woefully unprepared to meet the next major challenger, Apple. And by the time Apple did show up in this market, Windows Mobile was bifurcated and hobbled by the sheer number of device types, each with their own special properties, including different hardware, different screen types and resolutions, and different software capabilities.
Google is making the same mistake with Android, and by not adhering to more stringent requirements for Android-based hardware, Google is sacrificing control over its future for the benefit of rapid early adoption. The software updating issues that plagued (and ultimately doomed) Windows Mobile are not quite as severe on Android; that said, each Android device is updated independently, and Google can't simply deliver an over-the-air version of the next software update, like version 2.2, that will automatically update all Android devices. This is going to be a problem down the road, methinks, especially as the variety of different Android devices grows.
The only company that can stop Apple
But back to Gundotra's talk. Rubin's second point to him involves an interesting bit of controversy, where Google for the first time offers up publicly some surprisingly aggressive talk about Android's most obvious competitor, Apple and its iPhone. According to Gundotra, if Google didn't "act," it faced a "Draconian future where one man, one company, one carrier, would be [their] only choice." His voice rose as he said these words and laughter in the audience quickly swelled to applause as the people watching this speech realized he was speaking of Steve Jobs, Apple, and AT&T.
And then the poster flashed onstage, with its obvious reference to Apple's own iconic "1984" ad, in which a hammer-wielding athlete attempts to disrupt a speech by Big Brother (IBM) and inform the world that there is an alternative (the Mac). Many have noted that Apple has trampled all over its early idealistic days by becoming the Big Brother of today, with the most closed and inscrutable mobile platform on earth. Google's jab was only the latest in a long series of claims. But it came from Google, once Apple's biggest and friendliest partner. Consider the gauntlet thrown down.
The crowd goes nuts. In fact, I don't think I've heard an audience at a technology talk react in such an exuberant fashion since, well, pick your Apple event of choice.
"That's a future WE DON'T WANT," Gundotra exclaimed. "So if you believe in openness, if you believe in choice, if you believe in innovation from everyone, then welcome to Android."
Some of the less insightful pundits on the web have used this talk to frame the competition in the smart phone market as boiling down to Android vs. iPhone, with a shrinking group of other companies--RIM, Nokia, Microsoft, Palm/HP--being relegated to the side. I don't see it this way at all. I see this more as Android vs. everyone, with Apple and its iPhone being relegated to side show status along with everyone else. In fact, unless Apple seriously ramps up its product line--and the stale iPad UI and iPhone OS 4.0 being introduced this year do not cut it--then it's in trouble. Products like Windows Phone 7 offer far more innovative takes on the future of mobility than any Apple is offering for the foreseeable future. With this week's talk, Google has firmly established itself as the company to beat in the mobile space. And Apple, like other mobile companies, can now only hope to pick up the pieces.
Don't believe me? Ask Apple. When confronted by the fact that Android had outsold iPhone in North America in the first quarter of 2010, Apple's response wasn't to refute the claim--because it's true--but rather to point out that the iPhone installed based was still larger. And that's true, for now. But installed base is the past. Market share--that is, the actually number of units sold in a given time frame--is now. And as of now, the iPhone just suffered its first major setback at the hands of a major competitor which, I should be noted, has virtually unlimited funds, dozens of partners, and products available from every major wireless operator on earth. And when you look at the future, as noted before, Android surpasses iPhone around the world as soon as this very year.
To put this all in perspective, Gundotra moved on to discuss this specifics of Android momentum. In just 18 months, or half the time the iPhone has been in the market, Android has racked up some impressive stats. There are over 60 Android-based devices currently in the market, and as Gundotra pointed out, these companies aren't all Chinese makers of knock-offs. (Well. He actually said "people you haven't heard of," but that's what he meant.) Many of these partners are leading consumer electronics makers, like HTC, Motorola, and Sony Ericsson. In all, Android has 21 hardware partners in 48 countries and over 59 wireless operators offering these products.
Of course, just making products available doesn't guarantee success. Fortunately for Google, the adoption rate for Android is nothing short of astounding. Late last year, Google announced that users were activating over 30,000 Android-based devices every single day, a figure that roughly represents daily unit sales. (If anything it's low, as not all Android devices need to be activated with a wireless carrier.) By February 2010, this number had increased to 60,000 units a day. At Google I/O, Gundotra announced that Android activations had reached an astonishing 100,000 units per day. These are the types of numbers that Apple--or any other smart phone OS maker--would kill for. "Go Android," Gundotra cheered.
So Android is now second in smart phone sales, to RIM, in North America, and ahead of Apple. They're ahead of Apple in other ways, too. In total web and app usage, or what we might think of solely as "usage," Android is the number one smart phone platform, ahead of Apple, and well ahead of RIM and WebOS. (This is in the US.) And Android users have navigated over 1 billion miles with the system's turn by turn navigation feature in under 6 months, Gundotra noted.
Steve Jobs said that users don't use web search on mobile phones. "Well, we're a company driven by data, not by opinions," Gundotra said, taking another jab at Apple. "And you know what the data shows? The data shows that we've seen a 5x growth [in mobile search] in the past two years. And that's not just on Android. That's across all smartphone categories." Here, I think, Google is on to something very important. Jobs and Apple have a history of ignoring or downplaying those features or technologies for which they do not have a solution. And since there is no Apple search engine, people don't search the web on their phones, truth be damned.
(Looked at another way, Google makes a search engine and Apple doesn't, so it makes sense to highlight a growth figure that doesn't include actual numbers of searches, or break those down per device. If there were 17 web searches on iPhone in 2008, and 1000 in 2010, that's big growth. But it may not mean anything in the wider scheme of things since the overall search number is small.)
Android is also chipping away at one of Apple's true advantages: the iPhone app store. There are now over 50,000 apps in the Android Market. This compares to 200,000 iPhone/iPod touch apps (and 5,000 iPad apps), but is more favorable than the 4:1 deficit suggests. It's important to remember that Google doesn't need to equal the sheer number of apps in the iPhone app store, it just needs to equal the number of first-tier, high quality apps. And arguably, at this point, they have.
Google also boasts of over 180,000 developers creating software for the Android platform. It would be interesting to compare this figure to the developer numbers for other major platforms like Windows, or for major smart phone competitors, like iPhone. I'm still researching that, however. I suspect accurate numbers are hard to gauge or not reported for a reason.
One of Android's biggest strengths, I think, is the rapid pace at which new features and functionality have been added to the platform. In this area, Google outdoes even Apple, but I would also point out that it's more important to provide rapid updates when you're starting from scratch, since the first releases are going to have major functional holes. (This is advice I also provide to Microsoft when it comes to Windows Phone 7: It's not enough to just ship this OS in late 2010. The company will need to update, and update often, both to stay relevant and to reassure users that their investment is as important to Microsoft as it is to them.)
How prolific has Google been? It has shipped 7 Android releases in just 18 months, an impressive figure even when you realize it's padded somewhat by a succession of fairly minor updates. This past week, Google announced the next update, Android 2.2, codenamed "Froyo." (Which Gundotra curiously mispronounced as "Froy-oh" for some reason.)
Gundotra revealed several major areas of investment in Android 2.2. These are:
Performance. The Android platform is built on a virtual machine, which seems somewhat anachronistic but which Google claims "future proofs" Android apps. The idea here is that Android will be ported to multiple hardware architectures going forward and that as the OS moves to this new hardware so, too, will your apps. This couldn't happen if Android apps were written in native code. The virtual machine in Android, called Dalvik, has been significantly updated in Android 2.2 with a Just-In-Time (JIT) compiler, which Google says provides a 2- to 5-times performance boost on the same hardware. Demonstrations ensued, but you get the idea: Android 2.2 is faster.
More enterprise features. It's funny to me that today's most interesting smart phone platforms--iPhone, Android, and, soon, Windows Phone--are all very much consumer devices and yet their makers are also spending a lot of time (too much time?) worrying about business usage as well. The reasoning here, I think, is that consumers want to use their favorite phones at work, and if these devices can find their way into highly managed corporate environments, they will experience a new round of unit sales growth. So iPhone adds Exchange compatibility and, over time, more enterprise features. Android, for whatever it's worth, has been steadily improving its applicability to the workplace since the first release. (It already supports multiple Exchange accounts, for example.) And in 2.2, it's gaining over 20 new enterprise-oriented features, including remote wipe, auto-discovery, global address book lookup and security policy support for Exchange, device administration APIs, and more.
New services for developers. Google has added a number of new services that developers can target in their own application. These include application data backup , cloud-to-device messaging, tethering and portable hot spot support (the former is a curious omission in the current Android release), and more.
The cloud-to-device messaging API provided Gundotra with yet another chance to skewer Apple for the technical limitations its iPhone platform. "Let me be clear here," he said. "The cloud-to-device messaging API is not designed to compensate for the lack of basic functionality like multitasking in the operating system." Cue laughter and applause. (In case you're curious, this API is about pushing whatever you're doing on the PC--looking at a map, reading an article--to your Android mobile device, so you can get up and pick up where you were while on the go.)
And speaking of Apple jabs, the portable hot spot demo provided another chance at a bit of fun at Apple's expense: They used an iPad ("another device that doesn't have connectivity") as an example of a device that "comes with yet another bill" and simply piggybacked off the Android phone's 3G connection. And again, laughter and applause ensued.
(Post-Froyo, Android will also take advantages of emerging HTML 5 technologies like the ability to target hardware device capabilities such as the accelerometer, magnetometer, the camera, and speech. This isn't relevant to the current release, so I won't spend any time on this.)
Gundotra also announced support for the Flash Player 10.1 public beta (and related AIR developer pre-release) in Android, eliciting more applause from a crowd already awash in anti-Apple sentiments. "We are not only committed to having the world's fastest browser, we are also committed to having the world's most comprehensive browser," he said. "It turns out that, on the Internet, people use Flash!" [Laughter] "And part of being opens means you're inclusive rather than exclusive, and you're open to innovation ... It's really nice to work with other people in the ecosystem to meet the needs of users. Much nicer than just saying no." (Cue Steve Jobs facial tic.)
Android Marketplace improvements, including (finally) music support. Google's Android Market is, of course, the Android version of the App Store on the iPhone. It provides a device-centric way to browse and find the available free and commercial apps that are available for the platform, download them over the air, and install them. In 2.2, the marketplace and supporting app infrastructure is being improved dramatically. It's easier to find new apps, search inside of apps, move apps securely to SD card memory (overcoming a major limitation in today's devices), and auto-update apps and update all apps with a single tap. (Today, you must update each application one at a time.) These are all pretty straightforward improvements.
If the Android platform has one major limitation compared to the iPhone--and it does--it is multimedia support. Where the iPhone is supported by the number one digital content store, iTunes, the Android has, well, basically nothing. There's built-in support for the Amazon MP3 store, which is OK. But no real way to do anything sophisticate with digital media between your PC--where this content is currently located--and the device. To address this, somewhat, the Android Marketplace is being augmented to support music as well as apps. (Unlike Apple, which has an "iTunes Store," Google chose a good general name for its own store.)
But Google isn't just adding support for music, it's adding capabilities that simply aren't present on the iPhone. You can browse the store from a PC-based web browser and songs, over the air, directly to your device. And through a recent acquisition of Simplified Media, Google is working on PC-based software that will make all of your locally stored music content available to the device. gTunes? Sounds like it.
In the demo, the PC-based music was streamed to the Android device (another feature iPhone lacks), which is OK. More important, I think, is true downloading and media management. And while there is some basic functionality in Android, Google needs to go further in this area. And it needs to do more around video and pictures too, not just music.
Advertising. Taking a direct stab at Apple's iAd efforts, Gundotra noted that Google knows advertising, has hundreds of thousands of advertisers and is, of course, the biggest advertising platform on the web. I don't think I need to spend a lot of time on this--and I certainly don't want to--but let's just say that Google has tremendous advertising experience. And Apple does not.
Finishing up his Android update, Gundotra discussed the HTC EVO, the first 4G phone with a theoretical 10 mbps download speed, which Google provided to all attendees of Google I/O. (I'm trying to remember the last time Apple handed out free devices at one its events. Still trying...) "Thank you for voting on the side of openness and choice," he said. "Please keep building those great apps."
Looking back over the day's announcements, it's hard not to come away with the notion that Google is on to something here with Android. I have doubts about the future bifurcation of this platform, and how it will manage future features that only work on certain classes of devices, an issue that could cause messy problems going forward. But it's pretty clear that Google's "shock and awe" strategy is having an effect. As quickly as Apple rose to prominence in the smart phone market, Google is now eclipsing them and will soon relegate them to also-ran status unless Apple moves very quickly. But Apple, as demonstrated very clearly in its iPad and iPhone OS 4.0 announcements, is in a holding pattern. They're protecting what they have.
This will ultimately help Windows Phone as well. Microsoft is innovating unlike any other company in the mobile space--Google included--with the Metro UI, a UI that will work far better on new form factors (like tablets) than the me-too UIs on Android and iPhone. And it will work better than Palm's WebOS, which is also heading to tablets.
There are other companies to consider--RIM in the US, Nokia worldwide, though I feel that Nokia arguably doesn't even make smart phones by any modern definition--but ultimately I think the smart phone market of the future will come down to four players: Android as the mass market, iPhone as the Mac-like high-end device, RIM for businesses, and Windows Phone for those who are looking for a far more personal experience than is offered anywhere else. Google's announcements this week point to an Android-dominated future, and I do think that is likely. The rest of the market is open to everyone else and is Apple's to lose. Their action--lack of action, really--suggests they are doing just that.