Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

Summary: When your phone is no longer distinctive from the rest, what does it become? A commodity. That's precisely what's happening with Google Android devices, writes editor Andrew Nusca.

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TOPICS: Mobility, Hardware
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Commodity.

It is, perhaps, my favorite word to use in the technology world. It is the reality that consumer electronics manufacturers fear the most; the acknowledgment that despite all the millions of dollars spent on elaborate marketing, advertising and public relations campaigns, what they are offering is almost completely identical to what their bitterest rivals offer, too.

And worse, it's constructed of parts made by other, more niche companies who own the intellectual property.

How does it feel to arrange but not create? (Answer: terrifying.)

When Google's Android operating system was first announced, I and other journalists covering the technology industry warned that a forking OS -- that is, offering different versions to the market at the same time by allowing vendors to customize it -- would spell trouble for the growing platform. Despite this, the collective Google mobile presence has grown tremendously, though every product cycle it splinters a little bit more.

What's the best Android phone on the market? Anyone know? ("Droid" something, perhaps?)

Our difficulty in answering this question is because, along with a forking OS, there is a forking brand.

(All this sound familiar? I wrote a similar column almost year ago. My, how things have changed.)

On one end of the smartphone spectrum is Apple's iPhone: a single device from a single company on multiple carriers. Sure, there are multiple storage options, but the device is otherwise the same. Behind it is the previous model, priced to sell at a cut rate. It's a very linear offering.

Somewhere in the middle is Research in Motion, who has designated model names ("Storm," "Bold," "Curve") and customizes certain models to the carrier, denoting those with four-digit model numbers. If you're a fan, you know them all; if you're a casual onlooker, you recognize the model names. But not all models are available on all carriers, so there are more variables here than meet the eye.

On the other end is Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and Google's Android. Both use multiple vendors to make multiple models that are available on different wireless carriers. While the model offering of a single vendor combined with a single carrier is relatively linear (e.g. Motorola + Android + Verizon), the options are far more complicated as a whole. To be honest, I couldn't name five current Android models without the nagging fear that some of them were already obsolete.

Verizon's Droid lineup, the most noteworthy and memorable branch of the Android family, currently supports the Droid Pro, Droid Incredible 2, Droid X2, Droid 3, Droid Charge and Droid Bionic, manufactured by several vendors, Motorola and HTC. That list excludes earlier models still on the street, too: the original and second Droid models, the first Incredible, the first X, et cetera.

Even within the narrow constraints of the Droid brand -- one carrier, one operating system -- there are conflicting options for the consumer, thanks to multiple manufacturers, multiple technologies (3G vs 4G) and different naming conventions. Multiply that complexity across several carriers and vendors -- and remove the benefit of the "Droid" branding -- and it's a wonder that customers can even remember which phone they even want. No wonder the iPhone is selling so well -- it's probably the only phone consumers can remember by name.

Since the beginning, Google has had a hands-off approach to Android -- and despite a few toothless maneuvers with the "Nexus" sub-brand, it remains that way today. The problem: there are too many cooks in the kitchen. There are more brands fighting for your attention in your pocket today than there ever were stuck to the palmrest of your laptop.

To think we used to complain about a Microsoft Windows and Intel Inside sticker! Mobile handsets have seemingly adopted Spanish naming conventions: the Verizon Droid Bionic 4G LTE by Motorola Google Android smartphone. This isn't paralysis by analysis; it's necrosis by psychosis.

The irony is that all of these super-specific names only make the overall group less distinctive. It's like mosaic -- a lot of colorful little photos make up one grayish, brownish whole. As a consumer, your eyes glaze over. Your mind shuts off to the onslaught of detail. The phones begin to lose distinction and become precisely what all that marketing, advertising and public relations was supposed to avoid: commodities, thinly separated by screen size, novel feature or price.

In an effort to be the loudest brand on the device, the various companies involved in the making of your mobile device have drowned each other out. What's left in your pocket: a commodity without a story.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

    What is Android ?O.o
    vivianvein
    • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

      @vivianvein
      In brief:
      - Linux kernel;
      - Android framework/layer;
      - manufacturer customization (ex. HTC Sense UI);
      - user applications that use Android framework
      Solid Water
      • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

        @Solid Water
        OK and as a customer that means what? CONFUSION!
        davidmpaul
    • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

      When I lose all brain function and can't think for myself and want to look like an Apple 1984 ad brainless zombie wearing the same cloths and the same haircut, I'll get an iphone. Till then, Android is for me.

      BTW, does anyone know what's the best Windows PC?? Anyone???

      BTW, not smart are the ones that will buy a phone in 2011/2012 with a 2 year contract that is not 4G LTE. Verizon already in 175 markets serving 200mil US population... AT&T will be in just as many in 2012... Sprint too... but iPhone4Sux users will be using a dialup 28.8K yesteryear phone that they paid dearly for.... and that's being an brainless zombie... can you hear me now??... or in the 3G connected robotic siri voice... "let me think about that"... LMAO....
      larryvand
      • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

        @larryvand
        That makes absolutley no sense. You are confusing branding with OS.
        iPhone is just another handset brand in a sea of handset brands. Choose the brand you want. If you want Motorola then research and get one. If you want HTC then research and get one. If you want Apple then ...you guessed it...research and get one.

        It seems that your brain is already mal-functioning. There are about 40 brands out there. Moto, ZTE, Huawei, Apple, Dell, HP, HTC, Samsung, LG, SE, Blackberry, etc, etc. Sounds like your brain already stopped functioning and you have settled on Android...good for you!
        global.philosopher
      • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

        @larryvand When somebody purchases a phone it doesn't matter what OS or manufacturer they go with, it's a choice. You seem to think that people that buy iPhones aren't making a choice but they are. They are making the choice of the device that works best for their needs or the device that they like the best. You blind hatred for Apple only reduces your choices so how is that better? The fact that somebody chooses a device that doesn't have 4G is in no way stupid. What is stupid is your assumption that everyone has access to 4G coverage or that they care if they have it. Of course your small minded hatred wouldn't allow you to see the iPhone as an option if it actually was the best phone for everyone. That's not possible but your having an open mind isn't either.
        non-biased
    • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

      @vivianvein
      Android is the software that runs a number of smartphones and tablets. It's developed by Google (plus a number of other contributors) and it's open source. If you've used an HTC Wildfire, Desire, Desire S, Motorola Defy, Atrix or Droid whatever, or a Samsung Galaxy Something, you've used Android. Tablets of note: Samsung Galaxy Tab, Asus EeePad Transformer, Motorola Xoom.
      Dcarm
  • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

    I don't see the problem. When you buy a commodity, you get what you pay for. No brand tax.

    Is an iPhone twice as good as an anonymous Android phone at half the price? Does a brand name guarantee quality? Will a distinct label enhance your user experience?

    I don't think so, but YMMV. I vote with my wallet, and I don't pay extra for names or labels.

    And if the product is that good, why are they spending such ridiculous amounts on advertising? Would you *not* buy the latest iPhone if Apple were to drop the ads?
    - Have you seen the new iPhone?
    - Yeah, but I can't buy it.
    - Why not?
    - I haven't seen any ads for it.
    - But that means that it's cheaper!
    - Yeah, it's obviously rubbish.
    Ronny102
    • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

      @Ronny102
      No problem here as well. I gave up Evo 4G to my daughter and bought Galaxy S II. The biggest flop on Sprint Samsung phone is input language selection - English & Spanish (in the US of A multicultural country!)

      I like Sense UI on HTC along with HTC apps more than what I have on a Samsung phone. But the experience in general is pretty much the same.

      So, I am not sure how branding affects me, as a customer/consumer...
      Skipping a research before buying a product if it is a recognized brand?
      Solid Water
    • Apple's advertising budget is about 5%.

      @Ronny102

      And somewhat negates the "But that means that it's cheaper!" given HTC, Samsung, Motorola... also have similar advertising budgets.

      Likewise, commoditization comparison only really works when comparing similar systems. If you have a commoditized system that is fundamentally slower and more resource intensive when compared a non-commoditized system, simple spec comparisons are non sequitur at best. Misleading at worst.

      The commoditization of hardware is something tech people love because they can tech talk things like:
      GHz
      RAM
      ROM
      Cores
      Screen Size
      Resolution

      It takes away all the thought process of talking about:
      Systems
      Integration
      Response

      and other much more difficult concepts to quantify.
      Bruizer
      • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

        @Bruizer
        android represents full customization, free enterprise, open source, and simplicity as needed all in one. The Iphone honestly in simple terms is like a cell phone for dummies. Yeah it has multi uses and is a "smart"phone, but really it is designed for those who are simple minded and unable to take on complicated design routines and uses. It has an easy to use interface, as ugly as it is, for a reason and that is so grandma AND grandson can use it.

        there is a niche there and they learned that from Microsoft when MS designed their OS for dummies (Windows), but some of us like an OS that can do more with less, and do it more powerfully and of course without a bluescreen.

        So lets not confuse Iphone for something intellectual.
        brad1000
      • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

        @Bruizer Well, 5% is pretty relative too. When you consider the amount of coin Apple pulls down, 5% is probably a LOT more than 5% for HTC, Motorola or even Samsung.
        ExploreMN
    • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

      @Ronny102

      Or support. Brand is more than just marketing. Good brands are built on quality, consistency, user experience and so forth. If you don't have a well known brand then either your brand is new and must develop it over time or your brand represents shitness (poor quality, poor performance, poor customer support, etc).
      global.philosopher
      • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

        @global.philosopher Exactly, marketing only gets you so far. You might be able to get initial sales via marketing but if you don't satisfy those customers they won't buy again let alone they will tell their friends who won't even give it a try.
        non-biased
    • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

      @Ronny102
      Good for you. You'll never be a succesful businesman. Funny how so many people dream of running a successfull business and yet their own buying habits don't support such models.

      I am not saying you wnat to be rich but no one gets rich (by selling commodities...except for companies like Wallmart i guess)
      global.philosopher
    • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

      @Ronny102 Your right, you get what you pay for and apparently based on their satisfaction ratings people overwhelmingly feel they get at least what they have paid for with an iPhone. If you want a mid grade phone for a cheaper price by all means go ahead and get one.
      non-biased
  • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

    i bet you have an iPhone. Hater
    ukjaybrat@...
    • I do not.

      @ukjaybrat ...but thanks for playing!
      andrew.nusca
  • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

    I wish this article had at least some "news" or substance. Wasted 3 minutes reading and 30 seconds typing this comment
    studshark
    • RE: Android's branding paradox, and the fast track to commoditization

      @studshark It's a blog... but it's interesting article about the perception that is going on out there.
      ItsTheBottomLine