By the end of next year, there could be 50 or even 100 devices running on some version of the Android platform.
And because the Android platform is free and uncontrolled, it will be the platform of choice for bargain-basement, junk devices. The worse these phones are, the more they'll emphasize the Google and Android brands in their own marketing. They'll try to bask in the Google glow. But what they'll do is tarnish the reputation of the platform.
A technical person who doesn't know or care about marketing might look at all this and think, great! Look at all those phones. But this is a disaster for the platform because of a simple facet of human nature.
When confronted by brand confusion or complexity, consumers freeze.
Technical people, industry insiders and others casually dismiss this nugget of truth from behavioral psychology, even though it explains half the mysteries about why some consumer products succeed while others fail. The phenomenon was laid out beautifully by Barry Schwartz in his book, "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less."
Google's model of providing the platform, and enabling any hardware maker to do anything they want with it without Google's permission or even knowledge, sounds great. It's a recipe for innovation.
Unfortunately, innovation doesn't always lead to handset market success. People want easy, not innovative.
When the average consumer decides to buy a cell phone, he or she is confronted with a dizzying array of choices. Which of the several national carriers? Which of the dozens of wireless plans? Which of the hundreds of cell phone handsets?
Consumers are exhausted and confused by the choices. Then along comes Apple: "We're Apple. Here's our phone. Here's the plan. Here's the carrier. It's number-one. We have the most apps. Just choose iPhone, and you don't have to make any other decisions."
Apple wins because they offer clarity and simplicity. The Android platform offers the opposite: confusion and complexity. Which brings us to apps.
Google's approach also threatens to undermine even the App experience for users. The problem is that because of Android's Wild West approach to hardware development, there are now devices running three versions of the OS, a wide range of custom firmware and significant differences in things like screen resolution and the like.
It's already difficult, expensive and time consuming to develop on the Android platform. As a result, we can expect three bad outcomes: First, consumers will face uncertainty and confusion about which apps can successfully run on what devices. Second, the complexity, time and hassle of coping with multiple OS versions and many hardware variations provides a disincentive for many would-be developers to stick with it. And finally, providing real compatibility requires extra code, which could affect app performance.
Will Android fail? It's hard to say. Nobody knows if some company might come along and belt one out of the park with some spectacular product.
But this much we do know: Google faces colossal challenges in all three of the factors that determine success in the cell phone handset market: Branding, simplicity and apps. If Google does succeed, it won't be easy.
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