Android is now the majority smartphone OS in terms of market share and a significant portion of that Android market is owned by Samsung. What’s interesting is that Samsung is not just shipping Google’s Stock Android but rather is skinning it with its own custom UI. I am not a fan of third party skins on Android, but it seems a very large portion of the consumer base seems to be in love with their Samsung Android phones. It’s good to see a manufacturer doing so well with Android, but it is becoming hard to tell what the relationship of Samsung to Android is. We Google as the operating system vendor and a number of hardware vendors taking that software and selling it on their devices. In this simplified scenario, it sounds a lot like the Microsoft PC manufacturer system; where Microsoft licenses Windows to them (for a fee) and those vendors are allowed to ship Windows with (optionally) some of their own software installed but not real modifications to Windows itself. In the Android world, we have a slightly different story. Manufacturers take Android but also (can and often do) modifications to it before they bring it to market. The end result of this seems to be that a lot of non-tech consumers are identifying with Samsung (or another hardware vendor) rather that the Android brand.
This seems a bit strange but also inevitable to me. That’s mostly because Google has dropped the ball on branding Android from day one. Sure the tech community is fully aware of Google’s relationship to Android, but the tech community is a relatively small community and (though I hate to say it) not terribly important outside a certain amount of developers the ecosystem needs to make apps. In the early days of Android, Google allowed Verizon to coop the Android brand with its “Droid” campaign. This was a terrible blunder. Anecdotally, I have had conversations with consumers that had seen the campaign but had no idea what Android is and that it was from Google. When you ask a “normal person” who makes Windows or Mac OS X, they pretty much all know.
The question becomes what influence if any does Google actually have over Android? Sure they have terms for using their foolishly named Play Store (notice that it is no longer branded “Android”) and Google Apps apps, but that feels like a wiffle ball bat rather than Louisville Slugger — most of those apps could be easily replaced if a large manufacturer (ie Samsung) wanted to. Beyond that Google can’t really do anything. Due to Android’s licensing terms Google is not in a great position for any sort negotiations.
It might sound silly now but there is a very real possibility that Android could live on with manufacturers’ support (again mainly Samsung) even without Google’s support. To me, this sounds like a very real possibility as Google seems to be favoring Chrome and web technologies over Android’s Java based technologies. None of this is really bad, but it just makes me wonder where Android would be had Google stuck to its guns regarding branding and maintaining control of the project and code; before all of you write in, yes I know attempting to lock up the code would have been legally difficult given the OSs license, but I do believe we would have a better operating system for it. Questions? Comments? Dogmatic rage? Find me on Twitter and Google+. This post was brought to you by Code Journal and Fingertip Tech, IN