On October the 22nd
2008 the very first Android phone, the HTC Dream/G1, was released on the world. Despite some glaring omissions in the firmware and hardware that was more at home in a plastic egg than a premium mobile phone, the G1 has gone on to become the stuff of legend and is still the everyday phone of a surprising amount of the people I see in coffee shops and on the street these days. Sexier phones may have come along and the firmware may have passed the G1 by, yet it has something that these new models can't give to their users to tempt them away - an unsurpassed sense of wonder.
Many of the people who bought the G1 weren't the sort of people who buy smartphones. The price point was right for them and they went with the phone expecting another feature phone. What they found was a device that blew them away, offering so much more than they'd ever experienced before. Even those of us who had been using smartphones extensively saw the G1 as a symbol of hope for the future. A thousand and one days have passed since that phone was released and that sense of hope has faded. So, where did it all go wrong for Google?
Sense & Sensibilities
I suppose it all began when HTC came up with their Sense widget system to replace the stock Android frontscreen on their devices, starting with the pretty awesome HTC Hero. Now don't get me wrong here, it was a great system and all the improvements that they've made in future iterations have only improved the system. Yep, I'm a big fan of Sense and love the way the widgets look on my LG phone.
What's that? "The widgets are only for HTC phones" you say? Well that's very strange indeed. I seem to remember the Open Handset Alliance, of which HTC is a member, agreeing that anything added to Android by any company would be allowed to be integrated into the stock experience in future. My own instinct told me that the firmware would end up too large if that were the case and that a special section of the Android Market would be set up to allow users to download these extras as an option. Either way we were meant to be seeing things that one company had created benefiting the entire Alliance and workable on all Android phones. Those lovely Sense widgets would have mixed well with the stock Android ones as well as the LG and Samsung ones. My notification bar has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and a couple of other toggles built in but my fiance's doesn't. My app drawer can have categories set up within it and move applications into those while the Samsung app drawer is paged instead of scrolling. These should have been basic options that would have increased the value of all handsets but they never made it past their own manufacturers.
When one company created something only for their phones then the Alliance was discredited and everyone was suddenly out for themselves. Whether these companies were supposedly working together or not, they were still business rivals and competitors. Nobody wanted to give away control of something they'd created if there was a chance that others could use that to profit. The strong egos of the companies needed someone to sit the down, explain that their work would only benefit Android as a whole and ensure that anyone who didn't help out was removed from the project. As hard as it is to imagine the current state of Android without HTC, booting them from the Alliance may well have made the OS a lot more feature packed and less fragmented for the users as other companies got the message. Still, the manufacturers weren't the only members of the OHA who went against the guidelines for use. The networks did too.
People were very surprised at the announcement of the members of the OHA. Not because there was a Google phone on the horizon, as we'd known that for years. Not because the manufacturers involved had denied the existence of such a product as they'd done so in that lovely corporate way that pretty much guarantees that water powered car exists in a warehouse somewhere. No, the surprise was the fact that some networks were on board for this. A look into the details told us that the networks had agreed to have Android phones with no permanent branding.
Some of you may not have heard of the phenomenon of network branding, but I guarantee you've all suffered from it and no, it's not the T-mobile sign on the top of the pictured phone. Branding is when a network decides to make a phone more valuable to the users by adding software to it for them to use, despite the fact they neither know nor care what the average user wants. This software ranges from the regular browser having a new icon (mildly annoying) to obtuse software like menstrual calendars (yeah, thanks for that one Vodafone) to filling a good thirty megabytes of phone memory with games that need a premium connection through the network to even work or removing phone features that the network doesn't support (in case you decide to unlock the phone and go elsewhere that does support them). This is the main reason why I've spent more money on my phones by buying them straight from the manufacturer, as this extra software usually can't be removed as it is built into a custom version of the firmware for the phone. This in turn means that whenever a firmware update is available, the user with a branded phone is left waiting for longer (anywhere from three weeks to five years based on the shortest and longest turnarounds) before the custom version of the firmware has been agreed upon by the networks and the manufacturer and can be shipped to the user.
So I've just learned that the majority of Android phones wont be branded and, those that are will find that they can simply delete the branded firmware and replace it with stock versions or other applications from the market. Except it didn't work out that way, did it? The networks hurled branding at Android as soon as they realised how big it was and how much extra money they were missing out on by not including apps and bookmarks they could make money from. Again Google should have stepped in and again they stayed silent.
I suppose I understand really. Google were new to the mobile world and trying to get an idea of how best to fill their role in it. They didn't want to rock the boat too much at that point for fear of driving off manufacturer and networks, ultimately alienating consumers. Unfortunately this has rather quickly resulted in a large amount of fragmentation of the Android platform in terms of capabilities across what may be identical hardware. It's not too late for Google though. With the upcoming Ice Cream Sandwich release (these names are getting unwieldy and ridiculous now) they'll effectively be wiping the slate clean and creating a combined version of Android that has no fragmentation from that point on. The idea is that developers are able to develop once and publish everywhere so that fragmentation isn't an issue, but I believe they can go further than that. Google is in a strong position here where their OS is the most used for smartphones worldwide. Now that they're playing from a position of strength, they can be the ones dictating terms to those who ran roughshod over Android's early days.
Whether or not Google does put their collective Google FootBETA down, Android has done well to not only survive their first 1,001 days but climb to the top of the pile in them. I do hope Google manages to pull things together so that the OS can live up to the promise it showed when it was first announced, but I wont be crying into my coffee if they don't. Android is strong enough to survive without these things really, but it would be nice if Google at least tried in the future.