Why Android is Broken

Android is Broken

By most accounts, Google’s Android OS continues to demonstrate awesome momentum. One research firm predicts that Android device sales will surpass PC sales next year, and Google’s Andy Rubin recently boasted that 700,000 Android devices are activated daily—and that doesn’t include Wi-Fi-only devices like tablets. More good news: 11 billion items have been downloaded from the Android Market. So why is Google’s OS more vulnerable than ever?

Here’s why Android is in more trouble than you might think.

Amazon Hijacking Tablet Sales

As we learned last week, Android tablets now account for 39 percent of the market, versus 57.6 percent for the iPad. On paper, Android is up 10 percent from a year ago, but the vast majority of that growth has come on the back of the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. In fact, Strategy Analytics estimates that these two devices made up 40 percent of Android tablet sales in the fourth quarter.

The problem for Google is that these slates don’t look anything like the traditional Android because Amazon and Barnes & Noble have devised their own interfaces. Yes, they run Android apps, but they don’t access the full Android Market, nor do they run Google’s own apps like Gmail or Google Maps. This sort of fragmentation will only make shoppers think twice about stepping up to a pure Android tablet.

Google is Fragmenting Its Own Platform

One of the supposed benefits of Ice Cream Sandwich is that it make the lives of developers easier when it comes to making apps that run equally well on phones and tablets. The recently issued design guide for Android apps will be a great tool. However, while ICS shares some UI elements across handsets and slates—like the revamped Recent Apps menu–Google doesn’t go far enough.

When you pick up an iPad, it works pretty much the same way as an iPhone. With an Android tablet, the App button is in a different place and you touch the bottom right screen to peek at notifications, as opposed to swiping down from the top of the screen as you do on phones. With the millions of Android smartphone owners out there, why would you want to force them to learn a new UI when jumping to a tablet? The lack of familiarity is an instant turn-off.

UI Skins Are Out of Control

Last week, we reviewed the LG Spectrum from Verizon Wireless. The phone has a compelling HD display and blazing fast 4G LTE speeds, but Android is so heavily skinned that we didn’t really want to use the phone after the testing was over. The lack of a Search button didn’t help either. Another phone for AT&T, the Pantech Burst, delivers some great UI elements, including a lockscreen chock-full of shortcuts, but it offers quite a different experience.

I’m all for differentiation, but the look and feel of Android phones varies too greatly from one device to the next. There’s not enough consistency. The Samsung Galaxy S II sold like gangbusters because it combined great hardware with a lighter touch to skinning Android. I’d like to see every Android phone ship with a button that lets you switch to a clean slate mode for the OS, instead of forcing people to root their devices. 

Google+ is Getting Rammed Down Users’ Throats

I was recently surprised to learn that Google Google Talk was no longer available as a standalone application. Where did it go? It’s integrated into Google+, Google’s social networking app. Signing up for Google+ is also the only way to automatically upload your photos and videos to the cloud for safekeeping. The whole point of Android was to be open, and I don’t like being told that in order to get certain features, I now need to take on another social network.

Bottom Line

The Android ecosystem is obviously strong, and it’s still evolving. But Google needs to take more control over the user experience or its platform will just break apart. (And I don’t mean forcing everyone to use Google+.) There’s a reason why the iPhone 4S was the top-selling smartphone in the fourth quarter. Consumers know what they’re getting. The same thing goes for Windows Phones like the upcoming Lumia 900. There are some people who dislike this Metro-style interface, but at least there’s a consistency, and the same UI is coming to Windows 8—no skins allowed. With Android, it’s just a crapshoot.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Google Talk was not available for download from Android Market.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

AUTHOR BIO
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. Bryan Says:

    “…The lack of familiarity is an instant turn-off…”

    Yeah, like the new UI of the iPhone was an instant turn-off when it arrived in 2007. They should have made it more like a Mac (or Windows Mobile – hah!) And I’m sure the UI of the iPad was an instant turn-off for those who didn’t have an iPhone. I really don’t think the main reason why Android tablets aren’t selling better is because the App button is in a different place.

    But I do agree the ball is pretty much in Google’s court if they want to boost Android tablet sales. They are the ones that ultimately control the overall user experience of the Android user. And yes if Microsoft does a good job with Windows 8, that platform could grab some serious marketshare in tablets.

  2. Aaron Says:

    Read this; it may change your mind:
    http://www.androidcentral.com/four-ways-android-doing-exactly-what-its-supposed-do

  3. Rodd Clarkson Says:

    There’s a lot of inconsistency here. Where to start…

    Let’s start with Google+. I get what you’re saying but what is the alternative. If you think that Google is being overbearing, goodness knows you won’t go need the iPhone – Apple are so overbearing it’s their way or nothing.

    While I agree that there are probably too many UI’s for Android, you either didn’t know (or neglected to mention) that Google is requiring that all ICS devices include the standard launcher (what Android calls the UI) on each device.

    As for Google fragmenting their own platform with slightly different designs for tablets and phones, I have no problem with this, and in fact think that Apple could learn from this. I’ve used Froyo, Gingerbread and ICS on my various phones and Honeycomb on my tablet (which is much the same as ICS will be) and I love that they have the differences you bemoan so much. A tablet (with a 10 inch screen) which needs two hands to hold, is vastly different than a phone (with a 4 inch screen) and should have it’s usability addressed to work accordingly.

    Must be a slow news day if this is the best that SpoonFed has to offer. Maybe you should write something about how limiting the iPhone user interface is and how everyone has to be limited to the lowest common denominator, rather than having the freedom to extend things should they choose.

  4. Copolii Says:

    Every idiot now has an opinion on how Android is doomed and the sales just won’t stop.

    When will us idiots learn than Android is doomed and crap? We should all buy iPhones (and Winblows Phone) because that’s what some pompus blogger uses. We should all just follow and say “baaaaaaaa” like the rest.

    FFS if it was so broken don’t you think it would stop soaring?

  5. DroidGnome Says:

    You might want to get a fact checker before you post your next article. In addition to those that commented above, you said
    “Signing up for Google+ is also the only way to automatically upload your photos and videos to the cloud for safekeeping.”

    That is totally false.

    There are over a dozen apps in the android market that will take your photos from either their own camera software and upload it to the cloud, while others will simply watch your camera’s data folder (That’s the one called DCMI btw) and automatically upload pictures for you on schedule, change or manually.

    All Google + has done is allow you to auto-upload IF YOU WISH, to the Google social site to await your intervention to share with your circles. In fact they’ve made it even easier for developers to add that functionality (to upload to Google+ that is) in their own apps.
    Auto uploading of photos to Facebook, Dropbox, a bunch of other cloud services or even your own FTP server are more than possible on Android both today and with ICS. The developer simply has to access the respective cloud service API and off your pictures go.

  6. Matt Says:

    Google Talk is a preloaded app on Android phones so it doesn’t need to be in the market. I’m also pretty sure you can’t delete it unless you’re rooted – and if so you probably know how to reinstall it. It is not integrated into Google+. The messenger feature of Google+ works differently from Google Talk. And there are several ways to upload photos to the cloud but I happen to like Google+ so that’s what I use. I don’t actually want my photos automatically uploaded unless I’m on a charger so I’m glad the option is there. I also don’t mind a little bit of differentiation between phones and tablets, and not everyone who buys an Android tablet owns an Android phone.

  7. Mac Says:

    Im sorry but your argument is quite inconsistent. Yes Google+ is the only STOCK way for you to upload your video and images to the cloud. Well lets think about why this may be…1.)It IS a google device..2) Google wants to incorporate its app as much as possible onto android devices…and 3)Its a google device. There are tons of aftermarket apps that allow for the upload of pictures and videos that are not google owned. Picasa being one of them or dropbox etc.
    Next, you complain that the interface of devices are too heavily skinned and that Samsung did a great job with its Gs2 line by not incorporating such a huge skin over gingerbread. ARE YOU SERIOUS? Touchwhiz is probably to biggest skin known next to HTC sense. While I am not saying they did a horrible job, you cant say that they ‘lightly’ skinned android because thats just not true.
    Also, in regards to tablet sales, can you state facts instead of ” In fact, Strategy Analytics estimates”? Estimates are not facts. I can estimate that ipad only holds 25% of the market share of tablets but that doesnt mean I am correct.
    With all this talk of how android is broken, its kind of weird because the numbers show that its market share in the mobile space only increases, while the other two platforms you have mentioned (Windows and IOS) are both on the decline. Here is a link to prove that from an accredited source, not an estimate: http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1848514
    Well Google, If android is broken…please dont fix it!!!

  8. Markus Says:

    Two words. Open Sourced. As soon as Google starts to control what OEMs do with Android, the less open source it will be.

  9. Tim242 Says:

    Choice is a wonderful thing. Google makes the OS. It is open source. That means manufacturers can do what they please with it. When Google wants something changed bad enough, they can hold Gapps over the manufacturers heads. I’m glad Android has many faces. If we wanted the same experience and look on every phone, we’d buy iOS. Choice is a wonderful thing.

  10. Scott Says:

    Ironically, the things that the author mentions are all getting better, maybe with the exception of the Fire issue. Thus, Android has been immensely successful despite these so-called drawbacks. That only bodes well for Android’s future.

    I think it’s funny when the prescription for the Android platform’s perceived woes is to make it behave more and more like it’s competitors and offer less and less of what has made Android popular in the first place.

  11. Francis Says:

    It seems like this post has a lot more to do with vengeful opinion rather than actual content. Many of the arguments that are made against Google and Android have very simple counterarguments. My favorite is the comment:

    “I was recently surprised to learn that Google had pulled Google Talk from the Android Market.”

    I don’t believe that Google Talk ever was on the Android Market. It comes standard on every phone, unless the phone company decided to have the program removed. Then it’s beef with the phone company and NOT Google. Yeah, Google+ is somewhat annoying, but it’s marketing. You get what you sign up for.

  12. James Duncan Says:

    I’m afraid that Talk was never in the market; it is one of the licenced set of apps that are obtained at the OEM level. The ability to log into the market means that you have Talk.

  13. freakNasty Says:

    Personally I gett pretty frustrated with the simplicity of the iPad and the fact that is in essence a blown up iPhone. There is so much more UI wise that can be accomplished by taking advantage of the real-estate of a tablet instead of forcing it to be a grid of icons serving as an app launcher and little more. Honestly that UI is also getting pretty stale on the iPhone.

    As far as fragmentation is concerned, it amazes how reviewers fail to place themselves in the position of the consumer. The average consumer is locked into a two year contract and will use the same single UI over that duration, then likely purchase a device from the same manufacturer at the end of that process. The reviewer is the only individual jumping frequently from one handset to another. In other words, you have a problem with fragmentation, we don’t. Even when I did jump to Smasung after a three years of using HTC Sense UI, it took less than a week to get use to the changes.

  14. Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief Says:

    Appreciate the feedback here. Rodd, I’ve read about the Holo UI being required as a baseline, which I think is a step in the right direction and I should have mentioned that. But based on what I’ve seen from leaked screenshots the skins could still mess things up. As for tablets vs. phones, I believe the apps can and should behave differently depending on the screen size to take advantage of extra real estate but I still don’t buy that the fundamental way you interact with the device should be different. It’s an unnecessary obstacle.

  15. Foxy Says:

    If Google+ is being “rammed down user’s throat”, then what is iTunes? What is Bing?

    At least Google+ is something useful.

  16. Nines Says:

    @freakNasty has it right. These are reviewer “problems” not user problems.

    Also “Amazon Hijacking Tablet Sales” shows a lack of comprehension around the general Android philosophy. Android was never intended to be “one build to rule them all” the way iOS is. The fact that these devices have different marketplaces and different apps is perfectly fine. Seriously, you sound like an anti-open-source person from 10 years ago predicting that code forking would be the demise of open source.

  17. Andy Royd Says:

    “…the vast majority of that growth has come on the back of the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. In fact, Strategy Analytics estimates that these two devices made up 40 percent of Android tablet sales…” uhh quick math, when is 40% of a whole EVER considered the vast majority… this is the last time I’ll partake in this failed attempt of journalism.

  18. Frogacuda Says:

    Re: “Google+ is Getting Rammed Down Users’ Throats”

    First of all, this is a ridiculous complaint given that Apple does the same thing with iTunes, only theirs is worse because it actually affects how my phone can interface with other devices.

    Second, this is how Google makes their money. Android is free and open source, it makes no money directly. They make their money because the Android platform is designed to drive traffic to Google services and Google ads, that’s the ENTIRE business plan.

    But you don’t have to “take on a new social network” to use them. The cloud based storage features are indeed valid functions of G+ and you can use it for that (using the same unified gmail account you use to sync contacts and what not) without having a single friend on their social network.

  19. Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief Says:

    Nines, I think the Kindle Fire is great for Amazon. My argument is that if Android provided a satisfactory user experience it wouldn’t need to be completely forked to provide a user-friendly experience for consumers.

  20. Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief Says:

    Andy, I didn’t say the vast majority of the share but its clear that most of the growth is coming from the Fire, and it’s probably even higher than what’s been forecast.

  21. MH Says:

    “I think the Kindle Fire is great for Amazon. My argument is that if Android provided a satisfactory user experience it wouldn’t need to be completely forked to provide a user-friendly experience for consumers.”

    Pretty sure the reason the Kindle Fire is dominating tablet sales (specifically in regard to Android, but also why its one of the few tablets rivaling the iPad in sales) is affordability (and a good marketing strategy), not because of a failure in Android’s user experience. There are at least a handful of wallet friendly, full blown Android tablets on the way (i.e. the 7″ Asus TFPrime for $250 supposedly coming later this year). Lets see how those compete before we attribute the success of the Fire to a failure of Android. It’ll be interesting to see if Amazon has laid firm enough claim to their market share to fend off a device with exponentially more powerful hardware and full Android capability that’ll be at roughly the same price point.

    FWIW, when I went into Best Buy a couple weeks ago looking for a docking station for my 10.1″ Prime and not only did I have a number of customers come up to me asking me where they could get a Prime, the sales rep was ecstatic to check it out. It was by far the buzziest device in the computer department. If only Asus could have better handled the volume of demand and quality control, we legitimately could already have a true Android iPad killer. This is hardly Android’s fault, and the capability of the Primes that work as advertised is a testament to just how right Google is getting things.

  22. Nines Says:

    @Mark you aren’t hearing me. The Android philosophy is there is no “one way” to do things. You are wondering why they don’t standardize or enforce marketplace and basic apps but that is the Apple way of looking at things not the Android way. The fact that Amazon is off doing their own thing is perfectly fine. Whichever vendors come up with the best combination of features that appeal to consumer is going to attract the most consumers.

  23. MH Says:

    @Nines

    I don’t disagree, I was merely arguing that the reason the Kindle is outselling other Android tablets isn’t because of the difference in user experience, and that a plain ICS tablet as opposed to an Amazon-specific derivation isn’t broken. What Amazon is doing is fine, and I agree its what Android is designed for, I’m just saying that the Fire’s success isn’t an indication that other more typical iterations of Android are broken.

  24. MH Says:

    Oh oops, my bad, my name is Mark too, lol forgot the author’s was as well and that I was posting under “MH”

  25. Martin Henderson Says:

    Personally, I think each individual is entitled to his or her own opinions but just because they think something is broken doesn’t mean it is. It’s just that persons opinion. The market shares sure don’t reflect Android as a failed product. The world is full of so called experts that think they know what’s best for everyone. It’s up to us as individuals to choose what’s best for us. What drew me to Android was the fact that it is different from Windows and the lawsuit happy Apple. Ultimately the consumer will choose what is best for themselves. I choose Windows as a pc and Android for tablet and phone. My opinion is that Android is the way of the future and Apple is old news. I chose it because of that reason and because it works for me. Nothing more, nothing less. That certainly doesn’t mean everyone else has to and it doesn’t give me a right to slam Apple which is why I haven’t in this response. There are certainly plenty of things to pick apart there. Lately, Laptop Magazine has been very biased in favor of Apple so I’m doing what’s best for me. I choose not to read it anymore. It’s that easy folks.

  26. David Singleton Says:

    First things first..LG “sucks”…and to keep the ball rolling the Android Smartphone is the best mobile OS BECAUSE it is n’t the same every time…OPEN-SOURCE means ideas and advancement from many directions…not a standard build OS that exist in all facets of information technology…like Apple for instance…they make the hardware and the software…so Apple devices really do have a good thing going..machine and program meshing as one…and Windows..with their convenient and easy to use interface…but the whole purpose is to make them rich…Android wasn’t produced by Google…it was bought byGoogle. Android is derived from the Linux OS…which is FREE and developed by the people that use it…and that is something that Google can’t change…Android phones are great because they can be customized to suite the needs of the person that uses it…GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE as published by Free Software Foundation..it’s in Legal information on EVERY Android Device..it can be changed whether Google really likes it or not…Android is distributed as a product to be sold…but it is developed and made great through the cooperation and innovation of people who aren’t the GOOGLE MACHINE…if someone doesn’t enjoy the Android experience then bite in to an Apple and open a Window..as for me I’m going to surf the web on my Android that is processing data at 1.5 ghz lookin and acting just the way I want it to.

  27. Doug Fiedor Says:

    Written like a true Apple centric publication. I often wonder how much Apple pays you guys to disparage Android. I’ll not be doing fact checking for you, but your text does have some rather interesting errors.

    Apple is like Polaroid. They had their day in the sun and made lots of money. But now it’s Apple’s late afternoon and things will start winding down as evening comes. New and better technology and operating systems are here and Apple cannot keep up. Give then another few years and they’ll quietly slip away, just like Polaroid did.

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