This is Part One of a two-part series on Disassembling Android.
Android conquered the world in 2011. Hundreds of thousands of users activate Google’s mobile operating system every day, a growth rate unprecedented in any era of computing. This extraordinary strength has carried into 2012, but Android is not the brazen warrior it was a year ago, and its vulnerabilities are starting to show. Is the world’s leading smartphone platform ripe for disruption?
Dethroning Android will take more than a rival releasing a new operating system and seeding devices to manufacturers and carriers. Just because Mozilla is developing a browser-based HTML5 operating system (Boot2Gecko) and the Linux community is (finally) trying to make a splash with Tizen (formerly MeeGo), it does not mean that either will push the smiling robot off its perch. Android is too well established to dethrone so simply, and unseating it involves too many moving parts. But Android does show signs of weakness, and it will need a boost in the next couple of years to maintain its lead.
Android, at this moment, is still going strong. According to comScore, it gained 3.7 percentage points of the U.S. market share in the first quarter of 2012, from 47.3% to 51%. That was led by Samsung, which controls 26% of the U.S. smartphone market and gained 0.7 percentage points in the quarter. Apple's market share has been growing faster, as is seen by sales from the top three U.S. mobile carriers, gaining 1.6 percentage points of the market in Q1. Yet the other top Android manufacturers lost share, with LG (-0.7%), Motorola (-0.5%) and HTC (-0.2%) decreasing by a total of 1.4 percentage points.
Many observers thought that Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) would provide the boost that Android needs. The update was designed to quell many of the problems that manufacturers, carriers and developers had with the operating system. Its promise is still attractive – streamlined app design, easier to code for multiple screen sizes – but the update has not put an end to fragmentation (still Android’s biggest challenge), nor has it seen widespread adoption.
As of the beginning of May, Android 4.0 is being used by 4.9% of users accessing Google Play. Gingerbread (Android 2.3x) is still the predominant flavor of the OS at 64.4% and stubborn Froyo (Android 2.2x) still controls more than one out of every five devices (20.9%). Why hasn't Ice Cream Sandwich seen mass adoption six months after its unveiling? Foremost, carriers and manufacturers are not updating older phones from Gingerbread through over-the-air updates in a timely manner. Second, the manufacturers have been slow to put out devices that take advantage of the update's new capabilities.
Only a handful of desirable Ice Cream Sandwich devices are available right now. The newly released HTC One series is probably the best, but that may not last long with a new Samsung flagship (Galaxy S III) in the pipeline. AT&T did not have an Ice Cream Sandwich device on its shelves in any form until the Samsung Galaxy Note was released. Verizon was not much better, with the Android flagship Galaxy Nexus as the only decent Ice Cream Sandwich phone on the market (from any carrier) for a good portion of 2012. Simply put, for most of the year, there have not been a lot of exciting high-end Android phones. It's hard to see how the latest version of Android can achieve mass adoption while it's so hard to obtain.
Android still does robust sales at lower price points both in the U.S. and abroad. Going forward, that will continue to be a strength, as manufacturers release cheaper devices. Lower-end Android phones will battle for supremacy in emerging markets as Asian manufacturers such as ZTE, Huawei and Samsung pump out more and more inexpensive devices.
So what might actually pierce that Android armor? Look out for Part Two of our miniseries.