Android is one of the more fascinating case studies that we have in the industry when it comes to software platforms. As I analyze the industry and the strategies and tactics of its companies, I am becoming increasingly aware that Android is serving two roles for the technology sector.
The Smartphone Platform
Android first role is as a smartphone platform. This is important to understand at a fundamental level because it explains quite succinctly why Android has the market share is does on a worldwide scale.
Most hardware manufactures do not own and develop their own operating system. Most like Samsung, HTC, LG and nearly all other smartphone brands you can name, must use an operating system platform that someone else creates. The aforementioned companies specialize in creating hardware, letting someone else worry about the software. Only one company doesn’t need its peers’ help to create a smartphone ecosystem, and that company is Apple.
In similar ways, Android is playing the role that Windows did during the PC’s heyday. Microsoft provided the software platform and companies like Dell, HP, IBM, Compaq, etc., made the hardware. There has, however, been a fundamental problem for PC OEMs with this approach: very little differentiation. While PC hardware may look and be priced different, there is simply no experience differentiation when every PC runs the exact same Windows OS.
The Android platform, on the other hand, allows OEMs to customize and differentiate the software experience to accommodate a unique hardware experience. This is why companies like Samsung, HTC, Xiaomi, Amazon and others use Android as a baseline platform, but customize it in order to differentiate their products from the pack. In this regard, Android is in essence a platform that enables companies to create their own platforms. This is fascinating, but also carries with it the downside of fragmentation. Google, is working to solve some of these issues for developers by integrating key frameworks into the Google Play store — services that are designed to cut down on some of the fragmentation issue, and it is something they need to do.
The other important thing Android has done is to enable OEMs to bring down the upfront cost of buying a smartphone, and give consumers who can’t spend very much the ability to participate in the Internet economy. The bulk of Android’s greater than 80% global market share comes from devices that are priced in the mid-range and low-end tiers.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the above point is to think about what would have happened if Android never existed. To my earlier point that hardware companies need a software platform to install on their hardware: Who would have provided this if Android never existed? I’ve wrestled with this and considered all the alternatives, and the most logical answer I can come up with is that Microsoft would have.
So while some contend that Apple has had the greatest impact on the irrelevance of Microsoft in mobile, the reality is that Android is the culprit.
The Connected Commodity Appliance
The other very interesting role Android plays is enabling appliance electronics to operate more intelligently. In this regard, Android is very similar to embedded Linux. Android is likely poised to power refrigerators, thermostats, coffee pots, robots — you name it. Android as a platform in this regard has considerable potential. Note that the embedded version of Android isn’t the version powering smartphones, tablets, TVs, etc. — that is a very different Android. It’s the embedded version of Android that’s most interesting to me.
When I talk to companies looking to make connected appliances, it seems their options are either standard Linux or Android. The argument against standard Linux is that once they implement it, they are often responsible to maintain or even sometimes provide driver support. For example, a company that creates an appliance with Bluetooth connectivity running embedded Linux will often be responsible for doing the updated software work and compliance when a new version of Bluetooth emerges. Embedded Linux simply requires more software development work on behalf of the OEMs in most cases, whereas with Android, Google and its partners do this for the industry.
Android’s role as powering appliances in this “greater Internet of things” future is what I find most interesting, but it’s the one Google stands to benefit the least from monetarily. Time will tell whether this changes to Google’s advantage, but as noted, it may not be the point of Android, or even necessary for Google.
Android will continue to play an important role, but it’s important to remember that Android does not equal Google. There are many companies using Android for their benefit (and not necessarily Google’s). This is what makes Android so important. Everyone can benefit from it in their own way as they build upon it and use it in any way they like.
Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week on TIME Tech.