Google's possible decision to more tightly police its Android platform could have a powerful effect on Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and Apple's iOS.
When it first hit the marketplace, Google Android had a lot to offer smartphone manufacturers looking for an operating system capable of tackling Apple's iPhone: it was open- source, license-free, and amenable to being "skinned," or modified to suit the needs of a particular carrier or company.
But Google itself, concerned about platform fragmentation and competing against Apple's tightly integrated software-hardware stack, is reportedly interested in bringing a little more law and order to Android's Wild West: according to Bloomberg Businessweek
, the search engine giant's Android group is now demanding approval for anything companies do with the platform's code.
That article quoted Nokia CEO Stephen Elop as saying: "The premise of a true open software platform may be where Android started, but it's not where Android is going." Nokia recently chose Windows Phone 7 as the software for its smartphones, which will allow the Finnish manufacturer to save on research and development costs.
Google offered no comment when asked by eWEEK about its Android control plans. If verified, however, Google's decision could have wide-ranging effects on its competitors.
"In the short term, [Google's decision] re-enforces the notion that there are some quality issues for the Android app portfolio," Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, wrote in an April 1 e-mail to eWEEK. "These are the result of lightweight automated procedures around app approval and we have seen the negative effect in terms of usability, privacy and security."
Nor have relatively loose standards helped Android's fragmentation issues, Hilwa added, which in turn harm "the perception of quality and value which ultimately determines the profitability of the devices and success of apps for developers." Manufacturing partners may balk at tighter Google control, "but in the long term it is in their interest."
A stronger Android Marketplace could give the app platform more parity with Apple's App Store and help blunt any competitive momentum for similar online storefronts from Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Research In Motion.
There's also the view that Google's decision will depth-charge their whole model.
"Google's value proposition was that they would be vastly easier to deal with than Microsoft and let the vendors better differentiate," Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group, wrote in an April 1 e-mail to eWEEK. "They found that this led to a lot of crap being released on the market and they sucked at vendor collaboration. They are now rethinking that approach by being even more controlling."
However, he believes Google's attempts will ultimately backfire. "In effect Google, after failing at being different from Microsoft, is going to try and beat Microsoft at Microsoft's own game. That virtually never works, which will likely force them to get closer and closer to Apple's model."
The end result, he added, is a failure in the making: "Rather than figuring out how to make their idea work they are killing it by being too unwilling to form more cooperative relationships with their OEM partners."
Walking the middle ground is Constellation Research analyst R "Ray" Wang, who wrote in an April 1 email: "There will be many models. Google's going after open. Apple is closed but ubiquitous. It all puts pressure on Microsoft to define what the middle ground is."
Before news of Google's (possible) decision hit the Web, one analyst issued a report suggesting that Windows Phone 7, thanks to that alliance with Nokia, will surpass both Research In Motion's BlackBerry and Apple's iOS to become the second-ranked smartphone operating system in the world by 2015, lagging behind only Google Android.
"Up until the launch of Windows Phone 7 last year, Microsoft has steadily lost market share while other operating systems have brought forth new and appealing experiences," Ramon Llamas, an analyst with IDC, wrote in a March 29 report
. "The new alliance brings together Nokia's hardware capabilities and Windows Phone's differentiated platform."
Will the Nokia alliance, combined with Google's more stringent rules, affect other manufacturers' decisions about embracing Windows Phone 7 as a platform of their phones? Time will tell. The only certain thing at this point is that, after several quarters of embracing Android as a rights-free, endlessly customizable platform, the party seems to be over for many of those manufacturers-and both Apple and Microsoft will likely feel themselves affected by the ripples.