Android sign of a more businesslike Google

One of Google's core principles is "focus on the user, and all else will follow." But when it comes to Android, there's more than one user who needs to be kept happy.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
7 min read

Google's Android might be the most successful thing the company has ever done that fails to completely live up to one of its original principles.

Lots of companies have mission statements, core values, or publicly stated ideals that are supposed to put a pretty bow around the fact that they're mostly in it for the money. Google, of course, made quite the splash in 2004 with its famous declaration that you can make money without being evil.

The first item on its philosophical list of "ten things we know to be true" is "focus on the user and all else will follow." Android, Google's mobile operating system, might be the first consumer-facing product to emerge from Google where that focus is not completely on the end user.

The HTC Aria is an Android phone where Google's decision to let carriers control the phone has held back consumers. CNET

Instead, Android was developed for two main strategic reasons: to give the wireless carriers and handset makers of the world a competitive operating system to blunt the rise of Apple and the iPhone, and to ensure a growth trajectory for Google's mobile search advertising efforts. To do that, Google has had to make a series of decisions that favor partners over the actual Android user, such as allowing companies to muck up Android handsets with bloated software and control the pace at which new Android features arrive on handsets.

That's not to suggest that Google is ignoring the end user. Google argues that giving the world a competitive alternative to Apple's iOS software--tightly controlled by Apple and AT&T in the U.S.--is in the best interests of end users, who three years after Android was first announced now have a legitimate choice should they not want an AT&T-locked handset or a dowdy BlackBerry controlled by their work IT guy. And some Google-developed Android applications, such as Google Maps Navigation, are truly excellent user-focused applications.

But what it does suggest is that as Google moves into other markets beyond Internet search, it is maturing into a company where accomplishing its goals may require a different focus than one it initially espoused, one more motivated by business pragmatism than idealism; in truth, one that makes decisions like any other corporation. Google employees always want to believe in the exceptionalism of their company but when it comes to Android, it made a decision to focus on pleasing an industry. And that can have mixed effects for the end user.

Transfer of power
Google's Vic Gundotra, head of the company's mobile applications business, explained the motivation behind Android's development quite forcefully in a speech to developers earlier this year at Google I/O.

In that speech, he said that upon learning of Android's development before it had been publicly announced, he asked Android vice president of engineering Andy Rubin why an Internet search company was getting into the mobile operating system business. Rubin responded that the world needed a truly open-source operating system that would allow a multitude of companies to come up with innovative phones and applications to suit a wide variety of very personal needs among mobile-phone users.

And so Google embarked on a project where an industry was its primary focus. At the time it was announced in 2007, this didn't seem that big a deal. And, over time, it's clear that it hasn't held back adoption of the software: Android phones are everywhere now, and the platform is gaining significant market share.

But while Android is indeed becoming quite popular, there are end-user problems tied to Google's strategy.

Android customer support can be a nightmare when software problems emerge, as the public faces of Android--carriers and handset makers--aren't always able to solve those issues and Google's forums-based support strategy can be frustrating. New features and capabilities take forever to reach users because the wireless carriers decide when their users are ready: it took nearly six months for the number of handsets running the most advanced 2.2 version of Android to pass 30 percent of the installed base, first introduced back in May.

Because Android handset makers have to have ways of setting themselves apart from the competition, they often bundle their phones with custom user-interface skins, such as Motorola's MotoBlur. In most cases, that detracts from the user experience, almost reviving memories of the "crapware" that used to come preinstalled on seemingly every PC. Google is rumored to be working on a new version of Android that provides incentives for those partners to abandon the development of custom skins, but for now older users are stuck with them.

Google's Nexus One was the cleanest Android experience available but it was doomed because of Google's need to placate Android partners with different goals.
Google's Nexus One was the cleanest Android experience available but it was doomed because of Google's need to placate Android partners with different goals. Sarah Tew/CNET

And those partners also have the ability to deny their users certain Android applications, such as ones like tethering that might bog down their networks. To top it off, they can also restrict the way their users can load Android applications onto their handsets, a measure of control that Google often criticizes Apple for exerting.

Google clearly knows that its Android strategy has some drawbacks when it comes to end-user satisfaction. For what other reason might it have introduced the Nexus One, a phone sure to anger those carrier partners who worked so hard to build a market for Android? Google wanted to provide a clean user interface as well as shift power away from carriers--clearly ideas with the end user in mind--but Google was forced to scale back its Nexus One ambitions to avoid torpedoing Android's overall momentum.

Caught in the open
As mentioned above, the reason Google has meandered down this path is because in considering what it meant for Android to be "open" (another core Google principle) it settled on a definition that applies to its customers. Google's Android customers are not end users, with the exception of those who bought Nexus Ones while they were available to the general public. They are Verizon, Motorola, HTC, T-Mobile, and dozens of other companies that build handsets and operate networks.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently explained its Android strategy as the inverse of Apple's iPhone strategy: Google will license Android to partners who can do essentially whatever they like with the software. In practice, however, this means those partners can do things that promote their interests over those of actual users, such as the branded skins, alternate application stores, and tortoise-like approval of new Android versions.

Again, that wasn't necessarily a bad decision: if Google exerted as much top-down control as Apple when trying to get Android off the ground, those carriers and handset makers might not have been as willing to play ball. That could have set the adoption of non-Apple smart wireless devices back a few years. The decision was a pragmatic one, in that Google knew full well that wireless carriers have always wanted tight-fisted control over what runs on their networks, but it needed their support to make Android a viable option for those who didn't want to play Apple's game.

Still, even following this customer-first strategy, Google knows it has to enforce some rules. Hence the Compatibility Definition Document that Skyhook Wireless accuses Google of using to bar its services from Android phones, which requires handset makers to meet a certain bar to be certified as an Android device. Google has yet to comment on those allegations, but that case may yet prove that Google wants to exert more control over Android now that it has become a success.

Growing pains
When Google wrote those 10 core principles, it was a young company focused manically on one thing: search. In September 2009, with new major projects like Android and Google Apps well under way, it added a footnote to the page reading "We first wrote these '10 things' several years ago. From time to time we revisit this list to see if it still holds true. We hope it does - and you can hold us to that."

The beauty of search, from the perspective of an idealistic company, was that the part that faced the end user was extremely simple: enter a query, and press return. And Google's entire reason for being was to convince users again and again that the results were the most accurate, relevant, and bias-free results on the Internet. That made it easy to focus completely on the user, and to separately focus on Google's other main end user--the advertiser--with easy-to-use tools and outsize returns on their investment.

Mobile phones are much different. Carriers have needs that conflict with handset makers who have needs that conflict with end users who have needs that conflict with everybody. And while Google's search competitors have not seriously challenged its dominance in years, the mobile landscape is one pursued by the largest, richest, and smartest companies in the tech industry: companies that are not afraid of fighting tooth and nail for an edge. Partnerships--and therefore inevitable compromises--were essential to making Android what it is today.

Google, more than perhaps any other company in America, has staked much of its reputation on being seen as a moral cut above the rest of the business world. This means that any time Google is perceived to be doing something that an observer of any other company would call simply hard-nosed business-as-usual, its critics play the "evil" card, a fair amount of the time undeservedly.

As Google expands beyond its original mandate, such a high-minded approach may be unsustainable. But this doesn't mean Google will suddenly turn into Haliburton, Altria (née Philip Morris), or BP: Android has shown that Google is capable of operating as a more traditional businesslike business.

This isn't evil. It's smart.