I use Android every day both on my Droid II smartphone and my Barnes & Noble Nook Color e-reader/tablet. I like it a lot. But, I also have concerns about how it's being developed and being presented to customers.
Before jumping into why I think Android faces trouble in the long run, let me mention one problem I don't see as standing in Android's way: The Oracle lawsuits Yes, Oracle claims that Google owes them billions in damages for using unlicensed Java technology in Android's core Dalvik virtual machine.
I follow patent lawsuits and here's what going to happen with this one. It will take years and millions of dollars in legal fees, but eventually Google will either beat Oracle's claims or pay them hefty licensing fees. So, yes, one way or the other Google, and to a lesser extent Oracle, will spend hundreds of millions on this matter before it's done. But, so what?
The mobile technology space is filled with patent and licensing lawsuits. When I checked on these lawsuits in mid-October there were dozens of them. Since then, Apple has sued Samsung; Dobly has sued RIM; and Lodsys, a patent troll, vs. Apple and all its iOS developers, By the time I finish writing this column someone will probably have sued someone else!
The end-result of all this, besides lining the pockets of lawyers, is that we're all going to have pay more for our tablets and smartphones. It doesn't matter who wins or who loses. Thanks to the U.S.'s fouled up patent system, everyone who's a customer, everyone who's a developer, and everyone's who in business to make something useful is the loser.
That said, here's where Android is getting it wrong.
1. Too many developer versions
When Google first forked Android into two versions--The 2.x branch for smartphones and the 3.x for tablets--I didn't like the idea. I like it even less now.
According to the Android Developers site, there are eight (8!) different versions of Android with market presence. If we ignore the out-dated Android 1.5 and 1.6, that still leaves us with six shipping versions that a developer needs to keep in mind when he or she is creating or updating a program. In the case of the 2.x and 3.x lines that's a lot of work. Oh, and yes there are now two versions of 3.x: 3.0 and 3.1.
Who can keep up with this? I couldn't. But, wait there's more!
2. Too many OEM versions
You'd think that Android 2.2 on a Droid II would be the same on the Samsung Galaxy Pro. You'd think wrong. Every original equipment manufacturer (OEM) insists on tweaking the software and adding their own particular programs to each phone. Sometimes, as James Kendrick points out, the same hardware doesn't even work with Android on the exact same model.
Kendrick has found that the useless microSD card slot in the Motorola XOOM, even after its Android 3.1 update, still doesn't work. Or, to be exact, it won't work in the U.S. In Europe, XOOM users will get a fix that will let them use microSD cards.
Here's a history lesson for Google and the rest of the movers and shakers of Android. I've seen a "common" operating system used in this way before during a technology boom. Once, it was with the pre-PC microcomputers. They all ran CP/M-80, but every vendor had their own little tricks they added to make their computers "better." Then along came PC-DOS, soon to be followed by MS-DOS, and all those companies-KayPro, Osborne, and IMSAI-became answers in computer trivia games.
How did Microsoft make its first step to becoming the Evil Empire? By delivering the same blasted operating system on every PC. If users can't count on using the same programs and the same hardware accessories, like microSD cards, on Android, they're not going to stick with Android devices. If things don't get better with Android, who knows, maybe Windows 8 will have a shot on tablets after all!
Open Source, Security & Pricing
3. Still not open enough
Google, for reasons that still elude me, decided not to open-source Android 3.x's source code. This is so dumb!
I'm not talking about playing fast and loose with open-source licenses or ethics-so Google really stuck its foot into a mess with this move. No, I'm saying this is dumb because the whole practical point of open source make development easier by sharing the code. Honeycomb's development depends now on a small number of Google and big OEM developers. Of them, the OEM staffers will be spending their time making Honeycomb, Android 3.0, work better with their specific hardware or carrier. That doesn't help anyone else.
4. Security Holes
This one really ticks me off. There is no reason for Android to be insecure. In fact, in some ways it's Not insecure. So why do you keep reading about Android malware?
Here's how it works. Or, rather, how it doesn't work. Android itself, based on Linux, is relatively secure. But, if you voluntary, albeit unknowingly, install malware from the Android Market, your Android tablet or smartphone can't stop you. Google must start checking "official" Android apps for malware.
Google has made some improvements to how it handles Android malware. It's not enough.
So until things get better, if you're going to download Android programs by unknown developers, get an Android anti-virus program like Lookout. Heck, get it anyway; it's only a matter of time until someone finds a way to add malware to brand-name programs.
Seriously. What's with Android tablet pricing? Apple owns the high-end of tablets. If someone has the money, they're going to get an iPad 2. Deal with it. Apple's the luxury brand. Android's hope is to be the affordable brand. So long as OEMs price Android's tablets at $500 and up, they're not going to move. People will buy a good $250 Android tablet, which is one reason why the Nook is selling well. They're not buying $500 Android tablets.
Here's what I see happening. Android will still prosper... right up to the point where some other company comes out with an affordable platform and a broad selection of compatible software and hardware. Maybe that will be webOS, if HP drops the price on its TouchPads. Maybe it will be MeeGo. Heck, it could even be Windows 8. What it won't be though in the long run, unless Android gets its act together, will be Android.