10 things Android must change to become a long-term player

Android could lose its top-dog status if it doesn't address some serious flaws. Justin James runs through some areas that are sorely in need of improvement.

Google's Android is now the #1 selling smartphone OS. But if there is one thing the phone market has proven, it is that success is fleeting. Despite its current big sales numbers, Android and its ecosystem have a number of critical shortcomings that must be addressed if Android is to be a success in the long-term.

1: The UI

The Android UI is absolutely miserable to use. It does not matter what add-ons you include to spruce it up, the base functionality of the operating system is just a train wreck. Every minor piece of functionality requires significant numbers of gestures, and many of those gestures are poorly chosen. You sometimes wonder if the same company that made the Google search engine and Gmail also produces Android. Every competing product I've used (other than Windows Mobile 6.X) has an easier-to-use interface. And as phones achieve feature set parity, the UI becomes an important selling point.

2: Resource management

Android phones have horrible resource management, and it is because Android has a wide open development model. It is not unusual to see phones requiring reboots multiple times a week (if not in a day) because of the resource crunch. Android is the first mainstream OS since Windows 3.1 or perhaps Windows 95 that has required "average users" to know how to forcibly close processes to avoid reboots. That is not a good sign.

3: Application sandboxing

Another problem with the application model is that applications can trample all over the operating system and files. As both iOS and WP7 have proven, proper sandboxing can lead to excellent reliability and a much more secure phone.

4: Sync

The sync experience of Android is stuck in the stone age as far as I am concerned. Both the iTunes and Zune experiences with iOS and WP7 are flawed to be sure, but Android does not even have that. On my last Android phone, I had to treat it like an external hard drive and then attempt to find the camera's pictures each time. While it can be argued that the wired sync to a PC is becoming less important with the cloud's rise and the PC's declining use, you still have to ask, "Where's the Android cloud sync?" Windows 8 is automatically syncing application information to the cloud, Amazon's new tablets do cloud sync, iOS has iCloud, but Android isn't even talking "cloud" yet.

5: The marketplace

The Android marketplace is messy. It's not just hard to find applications that interest you, but the contents of the marketplace are a disaster. Malware? Check. Buggy apps? Check. Incompatible apps? Check. Look through the Android marketplace, and you'll see that far too many apps are filled with reviews along the line of "doesn't work with the arrow button on my phone" and "screen size is wrong for my phone." While these issues are due to fragmentation of the Android ecosystem, the Android marketplace does not do anything to test applications or provide system requirements beyond bare minimum details.

6: Content partnerships

Android's competitors are working hard to deliver content directly to the phones. Even if Google does not want to run a music and video store, it could be partnering with someone else to do it. Not developing a close relationship with Amazon was a big mistake I think, and now the only major independent content provider left to work with is Netflix, which lacks music. The lack of partners for content is what fundamentally sank Google TV's debut, along with significant UI issues.

7: The patent mess

In the last year or so, the patent situation around Android has gotten downright frightening. The most troubling is the Java suit with Oracle. Google was forced to buy Motorola Mobility not because it wanted a hardware arm, but because it needed patents. Can it turn about Motorola Mobility and make it a big profit center? Possibly, but that's not the point. Google is now spending billions of dollars to stop the bleeding from the patent disaster, and it is scaring away potential partners. These patent lawsuits are so bad that it looks like Microsoft makes more money from Android than anyone else, and some OEMs pay more to use Android than they would to license WP7. That is not a healthy situation, and Google needs to fix it pronto.

8: Form factors

Google has spent a lot of time trying to penetrate the tablet market, and meanwhile, its smartphone progress has stalled. At the same time, Google poured a ton of resources into the Google TV fiasco. Those resources could have (and should have) gone into tablets and phones. Google needs to realize that it can do only so many things at once, and in this case, it isn't handling the basics properly so it can't be messing around with things like TVs.

9: Support

With a system as wide open as Android, support issues are fairly common. Between the customizations that OEMs are making, the customizations that carriers are adding, and the application model that lets customers add all sorts of system-level functionality, it is no surprise that determining the root cause of a problem is virtually impossible. To make matters worse, if you want an answer beyond resetting the phone to factory defaults, the best you can do is to hit Google's forums. This may be acceptable for a free phone, but not for people who are spending big bucks on premium devices, particularly tablets. Google needs to step it up on the support side if it wants to avoid alienating customers.

10: Security

Android's Windows 95 development model has given it Windows 95 security issues. The Android security model is (barely) appropriate for a non-networked operating system that can run only one application at a time (think MS-DOS). But like MS-DOS, when multiple applications can run at once and the device is plugged into a network, all the security holes become quickly apparent.

Viruses for Android are now running wild; some are even in applications bought from the Android marketplace. Applications can do all sorts of things to run up a big data bill or access private information without the user even realizing it. It's hard to believe, but Google managed to create an insecure Linux distribution! While the damage is still fairly limited, Android does not enjoy the monopoly position that Windows had in the 1990s, which allowed it to be riddled with security bugs without losing market share. How many widespread public security breaches will it take before IT administrators ban Android from their networks and consumers won't touch it either?


Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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