May 11, 2011

Google Displays Big Numbers at GoogleIO. Is It Better?

The first day of Google I/O 2011 was focused on Android. For Google, focusing on Android and the mobile OS' growth is a real point of strength, with incredible numbers and increased velocity. But there are still open questions as to demonstrable quality leadership that would have people on the other side of the aisle drooling with jealousy.

Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android at Google, highlighted growth of Android from the first T-Mobile G-1, shipped 2 1/2 years ago to 100 million Android activations through 2011. Other statistics similarly portray a story of wide reach and penetration in practically every regard: 36 OEMs, 215 carriers, more than 450 thousand Android Developers, feeding 310 Android devices in 112 different countries. The 100 thousand activations per day highlighted in last year's session was doubled three months later, and doubled a second time, to more than 400 thousand daily now. Total software application installations have accelerated with the first billion installs taking two years, and most recently, only 60 days, with 4.5 billion installs to date.

With Google being a data driven company, there's no question they love their numbers, and these are good ones. But there's no doubt a sizable market who perceives the OS and the companion apps and hardware as being of lower quality versus competitors like Apple, or even HP and Microsoft. Barra stated, "The quality of apps is amazing," adding "The world's most engaging, useful and entertaining applications are running on Android."

Accompanying his comments was a laundry list of brand name apps that have come to be featured in Android Market, many of whom who started on iOS first, and have moved to Android, from Major League Baseball to Pulse and many top game titles. With that kind of intro, no doubt many of us were excited to hear what was to come next in Android, especially as we were caught up on improvements to Honeycomb 3.1 and the new Ice Cream Sandwich. But for the most part, the updates seemed very simple, leading off with enhanced widgets, and enabling devices to act as USB hosts. Ice Cream Sandwich was promised as bringing the best of Honeycomb to phones and tablets, but the response to Honeycomb so far, especially in its limited release so far on the Motorola Xoom has been lukewarm.

As was mentioned to me in a discussion with a small group of Google geeks, in a conference focused on developers, one shouldn't always anticipate the delivery of retail-capable products for end users. So while all the 5,500+ attendees (myself included) were no doubt excited to test and receive the new 10 inch Samsung Galaxy Tab ahead of its availability on the open market, much of the highlights were focused on technologies that looked futuristic in nature, with midlevel applicability to today's array of products.

The much-anticipated arrival of Google Music and movie rentals on the Android Market are definitely improvements for all Google-centric users looking to wean themselves off iTunes, but they do seem like they are playing the role of catch-up to both Apple and Netflix, who have significant headstarts and market visibility. It's obvious the music labels are so full of themselves as to be causing headaches for Google, Apple, Amazon and Spotify, but it'd be great to see Google leading the way on some of these spaces instead of filling holes in their lineup against Apple.

Don't get me too wrong. Google's software sounds very good, with fun demos of smart machine-learning driven mixes (comparable to that of iTunes), and wireless synching, where Apple lags behind. But if you're going to take on the established player in the market in the place where they are strong, it isn't just enough to play feature matching, you must catapult way beyond their offering, as Spotify did for me to iTunes, getting me out of that model entirely.

What I've seen happen in the last two years or so is that lines are being drawn between those who prefer one platform and those another. It's a rare person who gets the chance to try both platforms and come away with a full understanding of one's weakness and another's strengths. Instead, most are digging in with both feet and becoming defensive if their point of view is questioned. If Android wants to truly be perceived as the market leader, not just in quantity, but quality, it's got some more room to grow, to demonstrate highest quality tablet experience, app experience, universal application across devices, and feature leadership - because the other team has the branding and personal experience nailed, great numbers or not.

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