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

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.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor


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.

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