Android identity crisis: Is it for nerds or everyone?

There are signs Google understands what's necessary to make Android resonate with mainstream customers. But techie marketing messages undermine the effort.

commentary The more popular Android becomes, the more it seems to suffer from an identity crisis.

Android 4.0 is designed to be more approachable than its precursors, opening up Google's operating system to a broader market. But that shift toward the mainstream market is hobbled by techie-focused marketing messages.

The design of Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich, manifested in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus due out in November, indicates that Google is trying to aim Android for that broader market. It's designed to be more physical, with touch actions letting people do what they want without having to hunt through the interface for the correct commands. Google wants Android to let people interact more easily with other people without the phone getting in the way.

But the techie vibe that saturates Android marketing obscures that mainstream usefulness. That vibe risks alienating many people in the mainstream market before they even have a chance to find out about Ice Cream Sandwich's abilities.

Nerd central
Here are examples of what I'm talking about.

Let's start with the names. Perhaps "Android" is intended to make people think of their little digital helper, but deep down, it carries a message that the product is more about gadgets and gear than about people.

The "Nexus" name is more of the same: it sounds like Venn diagrams and link analysis, not about humans connecting. Verizon's "Droid" is even worse, especially when compounded by ads with that electronic robot voice. R2D2, one of the original droids, is disarming and kind of cute, but Verizon has made Droid seem like something only a Cylon could love.

Google promotes Android with robots riding Tron-style lightcycles.
Google promotes Android with robots riding Tron-style lightcycles. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Also too nerdy is the video introduction to Ice Cream Sandwich. It's got Android mascots racing around on Tron-style lightcycles in a black void marked off with grid lines. Is this a character you feel a personal connection with?

Overall, here's the impression I get: Android is for people whose rooms are lit only by the glowing blue LEDs shining through the transparent cases of their overclocked PCs.

To be clear, I'm not dissing nerds here. Google is a famously nerdy company, and part of the reason I like a lot of what it does is because I'm a pretty nerdy person, too. Nerds are great early adopters, and they carry disproportionate influence in setting the technology trends that the mainstream adopts later.

But nerds are a niche market.

Apple's shiny happy people
Let's compare this to the other extreme: Apple.

I've watched innumerable Apple demos and promotional videos. They star flawlessly complected, ethnically diverse, middle-class people who frolic in the surf, enjoy productive careers, and show off their children's soccer medals.

It's over the top, of course, but I can't fault the company for its overall message: you will enjoy life more with our products in it. The ads and promos are about people with their devices, not about the devices themselves.

Sure, Apple shares some specifications when it's time to boast about a device being thin, with nice-looking photos and the ability to play hours of video. But the specs are sprinkled judiciously through the marketing materials, and they're always subordinate to the primary message.

Siri, the iPhone 4S's voice-operated assistant, could have been a freaky fembot in the wrong hands. Apple gave the utility a bit of personality, with a female voice and some snarky answers, but it's nothing that looks to be on the creepy side of the uncanny valley.

To be sure, the iOS vs Android rivalry is real, and naturally different companies will try to distinguish their products to attract attention in a crowded market. If Google starts aping Apple ads, it'll make Android look more like a clone and less like a product comfortable in its own skin.

But I think if you want a product to be a success with the mass market--a success beyond just unit shipments--you could do worse than learning from Apple's approach.

Android putting people first?
There are encouraging signs that Google understands what it takes to reach the next level.

"People are at the heart of Ice Cream Sandwich," Google Chief Executive Larry Page said in a Google+ post. He was referring specifically to ICS's new contacts manager but also to the company's effort to infuse all Google properties with the human interactions enabled through Google+.

And Joshua Topolosky's interview with Matias Duarte, head of user experience for Android, shows the growing awareness that smartphones should be for "regular people."

Google conducted extensive studies of people with their smartphones, Duarte said, and discovered something the company didn't like: "With Android, people were not responding emotionally, they weren't forming emotional relationships with the product. They needed it, but they didn't necessarily love it."

It's to Google's credit that it's achieving this awareness about how its products are perceived and how they need to evolve.

But what concerned me is Duarte's next statement about its Android aspirations: "We wanted to focus our effort on making people feel more amazing, like they're super-powered. You put on your suit of techno-magical armor and now you can fly and shoot the bad guys. We want our products to make them more empowered."

Is this really how Google wants to position Android? "Techno-magical armor"?

I like to feel empowered by my smartphone, but this imagery makes me think of of Starcraft marines blasting Zergs or of Sigourney Weaver in a hulking hydraulic outfit, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the alien queen.

I fear Google is still too far on the geek side of the spectrum, catering to those who want to enjoy technology, not those who want to enjoy life.