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Why Google Android is winning

Google's open-source approach to Android is a key reason that it is quickly gaining ground on closed-source competitors like Apple's iPhone and RIM's BlackBerry. But challenges remain.

The global smartphone market is still RIM's to lose, with Apple in the pole position to profit from its mistakes. But new ComScore data on the U.S. smartphone market suggest that both should be worried by what they see in their rear-view mirrors:

While Android still claims only 7.1 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, "objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear." This certainly seems to be the case with Google, which added 4.3 percentage points of market share in just four months. And while Android's user base may skew "young, male, and cheap," such increase implies a much wider audience.


That is astonishing growth and has much to do with Google's open-source approach.

As ZDNet's Dana Blankenhorn remarks, "Just as the Internet takes friction out of the distribution and development process, open source for Google removes friction from the business process." In Android land, this means making it easy for device manufacturers and wireless telecoms to evaluate, develop on, and ship Android-based devices.

And ship them they are, to the tune of 60,000 Android devices per day.

As Wired noted after the recent Mobile World Congress:

This year at the Mobile World Congress is the year of Android. Google's operating system debuted here two years ago....This year, Android is everywhere, on handsets from HTC, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and even Garmin-Asus. If this were the world of computers, Android would be in a similar position to Windows: Pretty much every manufacturer puts it on its machines.

There is one key distinction, though: Android is open source. It makes all the difference.

Apple's approach is the exact inverse of Google's, right down to its developer contracts. Apple owns (and tightly controls) the complete iPhone stack, from hardware to software, and also exerts tremendous control over its distribution channels, which makes for a super-slick experience, but also constrains Apple's success to whatever it, as a company, can scale to deliver.

Apple has sought to alleviate this bottleneck through its App Store, which offers unrivaled access to third-party applications, but Google is improving its own application store and arguably already has critical mass sufficient to appease most users' application requirements.

Importantly, Google is assembling a community of telecoms and handset manufacturers locked out of the iPhone game. Apple offers an exceptional experience, but the iPhone creates far more enemies than friends with its closed approach--enemies who are congregating on the Android bandwagon.

The downside to Google's open-source approach, of course, is coordination, or lack thereof. People have rightly raised questions about Android's fragmentation--(fears that Glyn Moody believes can be put to rest). And while Apple gets top marks for its customer support, Google's support for its own Android-based Nexus One has been less than ideal.

Indeed, for all the appeal Google's break-the-mold approach to selling and supporting Android-based phones may have for some, it's likely that many aren't ready for such an open approach. Apple's closed approach is a very comfortable one for consumers.

Even so, as Funambol CEO Fabrizio Capobianco writes, "Open source in mobile is inevitable." It's inevitable precisely because the market is so fragmented. Open source offers a way for device manufacturers to collaborate on common infrastructure like Android and the WebKit browser (which even RIM is now recognizing).

And it's inevitable because mobile revenue models have never been about selling bits, but rather about providing services. This makes it easy for companies like Google to contribute heavily to mobile open-source efforts and still get paid.

In the enterprise, open source is often simply a more convenient way to distribute software. In mobile, it's more a matter of development: open, pooled development. This is as open source was meant to be. Google gets this, and that's why its Android platform is gaining ground so quickly on closed-source rivals.