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Progress, and a problem for Android

Google's Android smartphone operating system is doing well, just not quite as good as you might think from headlines like "Android overtakes Apple in US smartphone market."

It's true that the NPD Group reported yesterday that its first-quarter survey of U.S. customers put Apple's iPhone in third place behind Android, which itself trailed Research In Motion's BlackBerry. (NPD's exact figures are 21 percent, 28 percent and 36 percent.)


Set aside the possibility of statistical flaws in the Port Washington, N.Y., firm's market research. There are simply a lot more Android models and a lot more carriers to sell them to you--and in some cases you'll pay a great deal less than you would for an iPhone. You can sneer that freebie deals cheapen the Android brand, but you can't say those kinds of sales tactics don't move hardware.

And yet ... news about rising sales of Android phones and an ever-improving selection of Android applications (for instance, an updated Google Maps program with biking directions or a major newspaper's timely arrival on the platform) shouldn't outweigh other issues.

One is the evident failure of Google to get into the phone market by itself. Remember when it introduced the Nexus One in January, with a direct-to-customer sales model? When the Nexus One home page then listed a second model compatible with AT&T's 3G network and listed a Verizon-compatible version as coming soon--followed by Sprint's announcement in March that it, too, would offer this device--it looked like Google was on to something.

But a couple of weeks ago, Verizon quietly dropped its plans for the Nexus One to focus on the Droid Incredible. And by yesterday, Sprint had also bailed out on the Nexus One; it will instead push the Evo 4G as its next big Android device.

You can see Android's other issue in the lineup of Android phones that Sprint sells today. Its HTC Hero and Samsung Moment ship with an obsolete version of Google's software and have seen promised updates slip. After weeks of false rumors about an imminent upgrade from Android 1.5--which delivered over a year ago--to Android 2.1, a Sprint rep posted a note in a tech-support forum offering only vague information:

We are on track for the upgrade to be available in Q2. Sprint had hoped to have this resolved by now - we thank our customers for their patience as we work to bring them a positive experience with this upgrade.

Sprint has plenty of company in this aspect, however; Verizon's Droid Eris (a sibling of the Hero), AT&T's Motorola Backflip, and T-Mobile's Motorola Cliq and Samsung Behold also ship with 1.5, while Verizon's Motorola Devour runs the not-much-newer 1.6 release.

At the rate these guys are going, by the time those phones get their promised 2.1 upgrade, newer models will have long since shipped with the 2.2 edition of Android. Or maybe enough of their users will get tired of waiting and instead go to the trouble of installing some souped-up, unofficial flavor of Android instead.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 11, 2010; 2:56 PM ET
Categories:  Mobile  
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This is a very good roundup. I had forgotten about the Nexus one. I'll probably stick with my iPhone for a while. I find all these models and operating system versions somewhat confusing. I know if I dug into it a bit it would not be so much but now I just want to use a phone and not research it too much. If I change it will be for Verizon's great network. ATT's network is still inferior, in my view. Steve Jobs is getting closer to ticking my off with the closed-wall model (is that the right metaphor?) that some including complain about; I am slowly become more sympathetic to that argument.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | May 11, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Funny, the day you post this is the day that Verizon Wireless starts updating the Eris to version 2.1.

Posted by: doog | May 11, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

The problem is that 1.5 to 2.1 was a major pain in the neck. It had so many new and different components, manufacturers could not easily upgrade. This problem is especially relevant on CDMA networks, where a lot of extra code was written to make the devices compatible with the networks. 1.6 on had CDMA built in, but that means a lot of code had to be debugged, upgraded, or rewritten to be compatible. I don't think we will see this kind of fragmentation again. At least not for a long time. With better phones with better specs, the OS won't need to be cut down to size, and with fewer low level changes, the OS will be much easier to upgrade on existing handsets. Just watch, by next year, we will be laughing at the thought of Android being severely fragmented.

Posted by: superlinkx | May 12, 2010 12:06 AM | Report abuse

The fact that Google doesn't sell the hardware seems irrelevant; Microsoft doesn't sell PC's, after all. As for slower than expected Android release dates, I'll point-out that all of those mentioned versions still multi-task, while Apple's latest iPhone OS does not. So is it really that big of a deal?

disclaimer: I don't own either an iPhone or an Android phone. But I'm enjoying the competition. :-)

Posted by: JoeMc | May 12, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

The issue with online editorial is there is absolutely no fact checking. In fact, many Android-based phones are more expensive than the $99 iPhone.

I will give you that Google didn't deliver what it was expected to on the Nexus One. Great phone by most accounts but its marketing and distribution channel failed it. It's window was the holiday season and the beginning of the year. The fact that Verizon and Sprint dropped out was, as you put it, because the availability of better phones. That makes good business sense and highlights my view of the window of opportunity for the Nexus One.

You did forget to mention Google is actively aware of the fragmentation issue and has discussed its resolution for it.

Question (and I don't know the answer): how often does Apple update the iPhone software to add new, innovative features (not just bug fixes)? My understanding is you might as well wait a full year and shell out a couple hundred on a new phone...

Posted by: flippedout | May 12, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Nexus one is profitable even with sprint and verizon saying no. It's not that big of a blow, and it was their first foray. A learning experience, stop sounding like a hater.

My money is on things syncing up with 2.2 w/ flash along with the FM radio addition.

Posted by: Crucialitis | May 12, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Direct comparison between android and the iphone is a silly thing to do. One is an open OS platform and the other is a boxed product. The main thing to consider is that Google has created an open OS that is being accepted by the entire cell industry while apple is trying to build more and higher walls around it's technology. Both have their place in the marketplace and both have different approaches to profit aspects. In the long run Apple must continue to add bells and whistles to KEEP marketshare while all Google needs to do is make sure others continue to embrace the platform. By the time the iphone makes it to other carriers the premium for that product vs other options will be minimal. Just like Mac vs Windows of days past.

Posted by: dcperspective | May 12, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

I think you missed the point of the Nexus.. Google has a 'standard' development platform that they are selling (at some levels) but giving away many more to developers that are writing apps for the platform..

I wonder if Google would tell you how many they've given away?

Posted by: ServingProudly | May 12, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

The promise of a Nexus One, to me, was being able to get a smartphone but only occasionally using it for data-heavy applications. Verizon at this point requires shelling out $30 extra dollars a month for a data plan if you buy a smartphone on their network. There's a $10/month data plan for much weaker phones without a smartphone's capabilities. Why can't I get a small-MB or per-MB plan through Verizon? All their offers feel like traps.

Posted by: polthereal | May 12, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

This article is a load of non-sense.

Google created the Nexus One mostly to push forward the design of Android handsets. Mission accomplished, I would say judging by the fact that the Incredible is a Nexus One with a better camera and Sense UI, and the Evo is just a fantastic machine.

The direct to consumer model didn't work (yet) for Google, so what? They are getting exactly the result they were going for, increasing Android penetration.

The fragmentation is a complete non-issue, Google is already addressing it in Froyo, and while it's a hassle to deal with 1.5 and 1.6 right now, as soon as the updates roll out for the Hero (Eris is just that, a Hero...) the 1.5 market share will be all but history.

Bottom line, the only company with a problem right now is Apple, that is seeing its market share attacked aggressively by other manufacturer using Android.

Posted by: LuckyMethod | May 12, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

FTA: "...a couple of weeks ago, Verizon quietly dropped its plans for the Nexus One to focus on the Droid Incredible. And by yesterday, Sprint had also bailed out on the Nexus One; it will instead push the Evo 4G..."

So, the problem for Android is that it is being replaced by ...Android?

Posted by: michaellasalle | May 12, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Google's fumble of Nexus One marketing is hardly a problem for Android. After all, the carriers that backed out of Nexus One have opted to support... more advanced Android phones.

Posted by: tomasso1 | May 12, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

With respect to Verizon dropping the Nexus 1, what happened to Verizon's promise of an "open" network where they accepted other company's phones? Anybody remember that promise? First one up (Nexus) and it's gone. If we're objected to Apple's "closed" device, what about Verizon's closed system?

Posted by: southVAHmptn | May 12, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

The real story is that Android's growth curve and adoption is accelerating rapidly while that of the Apple OS is relatively flat.

The author fails to mention that; one does wonder why or if he understands the implications.

BTW, my HTC HERO with the "old" 1.5 version does everything, and more, than my silly Iphone did.

I can only imagine what it'll do when the 2.1 upgrade finally arrives.

Having now had both, it isn't an issue at all to wait.

Posted by: MichaelATX | May 12, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

You arguement is flaud, for two or three reasons...
One you sound like a Steve Job Fan boy... Good luck to you and your closed apple system...
Second, Forget about the research.... In my netwrok of friends and co workers, 4 people bought an android phone to every 1 iphone... Does not make it scientific but it is a random sample of 300+ employee company...
3rd The fact that anyone can make or license an Android Phone is a + not a -.... Apple is making the EXACT same mistake that it made with the PC market...
People are NOT stupid...
Yes the iPhone store has more apps, but look at the growth in the Android market.... 50,000 + and counting in just months....
The things I can do with my Android.. Makes my iPhone friends drole ...
Just waite for 2 more years... You will see..
No Flash, closed system, expensive, Battery costs, of please.... give me a break... People are NOT stupid... Well... sorry ... some are..

Posted by: sam5271 | May 12, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

To address one thing that seems unclear to some of you: I own an Android phone myself. As for other issues cited in the comments...

@doog: Good thing I didn't cite the Droid Eris as my first exhibit of version fragmentation!

@superlinkx: I hope you're right.

@flippedout: The "$99 iPhone" is the two-year-old 3G model. As for major OS updates from Apple, you're looking at basically once a year.

@michaellasalle: Fair point. But if you remember the run-up to the Nexus One's launch, you should recall that there was a lot of anticipation about the prospect of Google breaking open the traditional model of phone distribution. Android is still a good platform without that, but still...

@sam5271: Hahaha. You're new here, aren't you?

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | May 12, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Irrespective of the technical merits, the NexusOne is illustrative of the axiom, "If you live on the bleeding edge, expect to get cut now and then." And illustrative of the power that the wireless carriers have on products.

Android is an operating system. Like another well-known operating system which shall remain nameless, it is concurrently available in several versions on several hardware platforms at several price points. But that other well-known operating system will charge you money and put you through some major pain to migrate to a newer version.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | May 12, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

It's the NexusOne data input by voice that has me interested.

Posted by: pamschel1 | May 13, 2010 3:33 AM | Report abuse

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