ZDNet's resident open source and health care blogger, Dana Blankenhorn, called Android a failure for Google. However, with a 25% share of the worldwide smartphone market and ad revenue matching that of Apple's iOS last month, I think it's pretty safe to call Android a success. I bet Canonical wishes that Ubuntu were as much of a failure as Android. Hell, for that matter, so do I.
Dana presents some interesting statistics and cites James Allward's Harvard Business Review assessment of risks to Google stemming from the openness and customizabilty of Android as the reason for Android's "failure." However, Allward's arguments themselves are flawed. Allward correctly points out that Google's major source of revenue from (and actually major motivation for creating) Android is search revenue from the mobile space.
However, he goes on to suggest that because carriers are, in some cases (especially in China), choosing to set a default search engine on the open source OS to something other than Google:
Baidu, the internet search engine that has successfully challenged Google for ownership of the Chinese market, [is] reportedly in negotiations with a number of smartphone manufacturers to remove all references to Google, and replace them with Baidu.
That was bad news. But what should really have Google concerned, however, is that there are instances of this fight being moved to domestic soil. Microsoft recently negotiated with Verizon that some of the Android phones that ship to Verizon customers will have Microsoft's Bing, not Google, as the default search engine. And the manufacturers are getting in on the act too: Motorola recently released a new phone, the Citrus, based on Android, but shipping with Bing.
So, apparently he hasn't heard of this little-known desktop browser called Internet Explorer. It comes on PCs running some obscure OS called Windows something or other. It ships with Bing as its default search engine, too. And yet, Google utterly dominates search in the Windows world, just as it does elsewhere. Go figure. You think users might actually change their default search provider, search on their mobile browser, or install another mobile browser that does use Google as its default search?
Sure, open sourcing Android has and will result in some collateral damage. And Google is going to have to begin exerting some control over upgrade cycles with carriers to reduce fragmentation, which I frankly think is a far bigger problem than Baidu remaining dominant in Chinese search (this is nothing new). However, millions and millions of handsets, emerging tablets and similar devices, and now Google TV, all running Android, mean that Google shouldn't be losing too much sleep over the Motorola Citrus.
Guess what? We can change our default search providers. It's pretty easy and, as long as Google keeps rolling out compelling features, you can bet the company is going to keep raking in the mobile search revenue.
Android fail? Android challenges, possibly. Even Android risks, if you're feeling pessimistic. But Dana's conclusion that Google should build its own phone that can leverage ubiquitous WiFi and interesting partnerships with 2nd- and 3rd-tier mobile carriers is the best evidence that Android is a wild success. It's a platform on which just about anything is possible for just about any company with some capital and a bit of imagination.
The open source model has made this happen and will ensure that while iOS might have an incredibly elegant user experience, Android will continue to grow in new and unprecedented ways. Diversification and ubiquity will mean that it's OK for some users (even a lot of users) to keep on searching with Bing, Baidu, or Bob's House-o'-Search. It simply won't matter in the grand scheme of things. I so wish that I could fail in everything I do as well as Google has failed with Android.