Google has tried to walk a fine line with Android. While trying to be true to its “openness” rhetoric about the platform, it has also tried to prevent increasing fragmentation. In addition, it has also sought to prevent any single partner or third party from having too much sway over Android.
Google’s challenges on both fronts are illustrated by cases involving a rival and a close partner: Yandex (the rival) and Samsung (the partner).
At the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, Spain, Google rival Yandex formally introduced its own Android app store. (The Yandex Store was first announced last October.) Yandex is pitching device makers and operators on working with its “alternative mobile ecosystem” rather than directly with Google.
Realistically, however, the Yandex store is only likely to be successful in Russia and other markets where Yandex has a significant presence: Eastern Europe and Turkey. Yandex also announced a new version of its 3D Android UI called Yandex.Shell.
Amazon is the poster child for Android success without Google. The company has had enormous sales success (though not profitability) with its “forked” Kindle devices and alternative app store. Google has no participation in either, although Android developers benefit from the increased Android device reach — that indirectly benefits Google.
One major reason Google developed the Nexus 7 (with ASUS) was to counter Amazon’s success with Kindle Fire and not enable the Seattle company to dominate the market for Android tablets.
Now, Google is reportedly experiencing anxiety about Samsung’s success with Android handsets. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google is worried about Samsung’s increasing dominance of global Android sales:
Samsung’s growing might—last year, the South Korean manufacturer shipped nearly 200 million more Android smartphones than the next-biggest Android-device maker—has boosted Google’s mobile-ad revenue but also is causing concern inside the Internet company . . .
[Android boss Andy] Rubin also said Samsung could become a threat if it attains a dominant position among mobile-device manufacturers that use Android . . .
The narrative around Google’s acquisition of Motorola, at the time, focused on its patents. But, Google also bought the company to avoid being entirely dependent on third party hardware makers. That “use case” now comes into focus.
Google had pledged to show its Motorola division no special treatment and work with it at arms length as it would any other device maker. It now needs to break that promise to compete against Samsung, which is crushing its Android competitors.
The South Korean company has created a global brand around Galaxy (not Android) and is spending gazillions on marketing. If you watched the Academy Awards you probably saw at least 10 commercials for the Galaxy Note and Samsung.
All this has boosted Android sales and ad revenue for Google. Why should the company be concerned?
Samsung’s adoption of Android was a move of necessity, responding to the rise of the iPhone. There was literally nowhere else viable to turn at the time. And, Samsung has historically been wary of and ambivalent about Google (though that would never be said publicly). Google compelled Samsung to stop working with Skyhook Wireless several years ago.
At the time, Samsung was the weaker party in the relationship. I suspect the company would relish the ability to now assert power over Mountain View. Indeed, with domination of the global Android market comes enormous power. And, like characters in a David Mamet play, the tables could turn, and Samsung could be in a position to dictate terms to Google.
The WSJ article mentions the “X-Phone” as a device that would compete with the iPhone. But more importantly, it would seek to compete with Galaxy devices from Samsung. I would argue that if we could be a fly on the wall at Motorola, we would probably learn that Galaxy phones are its primary competitive target.
As a practical matter, Google is now as much a competitor of its Android partner Samsung as it is of Apple. In fact, as much as it wants to beat the iPhone, Google needs and probably wants the iPhone to remain a healthy presence in the market as a partial “hedge” against Samsung world domination.