A look at the Android world outside of Google’s control

by: Simon HillApril 3, 2014

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Quinn Dombrowski

The dominance of Android in the smartphone market worldwide is still growing. Google continues to improve the platform. Manufacturers are producing a great range of devices. But the future doesn’t look rosy to everyone. Is there a storm on the horizon? Could forked versions of the platform spell disaster for Google? Is there a real danger it could lose control?

According to ABI Research the platform accrued a 77% market share in Q4 of 2013 and it was on 78% of the nearly 1 billion smartphones that shipped during last year. To get to the juicy part of ABI’s research, the part that has been generating headlines, you have to dig a little deeper and examine the split between Google’s Android and the AOSP (Android Open Source Project).

Taking a closer look at Q4 2013 we find that 25% of the market, or 71 million smartphones, were running forked versions of Android or AOSP. Google’s Android actually accounted for 52% of shipments. That 52% is not to be sniffed at, it compares to 18% for Apple’s iOS and 4% for Microsoft’s Windows Phone, but the 25% for AOSP is very significant. If we set Google’s Android aside with its 52% then we find that AOSP accounted for more shipments than the whole rest of the market put together.

China, India, Russia, and other markets

There is one major driving force behind this trend. It’s very simple. Smartphone sales in China, India, Russia, and a few other markets are incredibly high right now and they are continuing to grow very quickly. These are markets where Google is a foreign company up against good local competition. Take a look at this chart, compiled by The Guardian’s Charles Arthur.

Smartphones in 2014: who's buying?

China is the biggest market by far. Google has fought a long and highly publicized censorship battle with the government there and after a serious cyber-attack back in 2010 it even suggested that it might close down its Chinese operations. Its popularity in China dropped significantly after that and ultimately Google backed down.

If we take a look at the figures for page-views in China in 2013, according to Tech In Asia, then it becomes clear how bad things are for Google. Baidu is dominant, although its share dropped to 63.1% in December 2013 as Qihoo soared up to 22.5%. Google managed just 1.6%.

Baidu and Qihoo both have app stores, not to mention web browsers, music streaming services, and anti-virus apps. You may recognize the name Qihoo as the company already offers a great range of security apps, like 360 Mobile Safe in the Play Store. There’s every chance that these players will go head-to-head with Google beyond China’s borders in the future.

Google’s fortunes in India appear to be brighter and it can claim 90% of the search market. This Forbes India piece gives an insight into the efforts that Google has made to capture and retain the Indian market, which has huge potential for growth.

In Russia, Google trails way behind Yandex on Web search, Bloomberg suggests 62% share for Yandex to Google’s 27% and it also points out that Huawei and Explay (accounting for roughly 6% of smartphone sales in Russia) will pre-install Yandex services instead of Google services on their devices.

Other Android forks

Closer to home the big threat is currently Amazon. If we glance at the latest tablet stats from Gartner we find that Amazon has a 4.8% market share for 2013. That’s down from 6.6% in 2012, but Android grew 127% over the year to take the number one spot in tablets, so Amazon is still making gains. It is easy to sideload Google services onto Amazon tablets, but we have no idea how many people do this.

The threat isn’t confined to tablets as we also have Nokia’s Android X phones on the horizon now, although, once again, it is easy to sideload Google services.


What does this mean for Google?

The growth of AOSP without Google services is going to impact on the company monetizing the Android platform. It’s a lot of potential revenue being siphoned off by competitors.

Let’s not get carried away here. There’s no imminent coup that’s going to sweep Android out of Google’s hands. It’s perfectly natural for companies to do better in specific countries than they do in others. The important point right now is that Google offers a better experience than anyone else in an awful lot of markets. If Baidu can deliver what Chinese people want better than Google, then it deserves to dominate – same goes for Yandex in Russia. Google has no divine right to those users.

There are signs that Google is starting to exercise a little more caution with Android and ensure that more of the exciting and desirable new developments in the platform are part of Google’s Android rather than AOSP. If you’re in the US, the UK, or a number of other markets then the experience that Google delivers is simply unbeatable right now. Amazon’s Android fork feels limited and it’s hard to imagine new players breaking into the market and offering something more compelling than what Google currently offers. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but Google is hardly resting on its laurels.

The battle for mobile

Different companies have very different aims in mobile. The sale of Motorola Mobility could spell the end of Google’s experiment with hardware. Google’s profits are based on advertising and the unparalleled insights it can draw from the big data all those users generate. Without the pressure to make direct profit by selling services it has been able to totally disrupt a number of industries. Android is obviously the biggest success story beyond search, and it’s all about making sure that Google has a good slice of the mobile action, which is clearly where the market is moving.

The real barrier to someone else stealing away the Android platform is the difficulty of doing a better job than Google. Let’s not forget that Google’s Android still accounted for 52% of shipments in that Q4 of 2013, which is more than 150 million devices with Google services onboard. Panic may be premature.

  • MasterMuffin

    Good thing that they’ve got India, soon there will be more people there than Americas and Europe combined!

    • Aniruddh

      You can find Android everywhere in India. I am surprised that people still own dumb phones considering that you can get smartphones for as low as $100.
      The upper classes, however, usually are ‘dumb’ and just buy the most expensive phone to show off. One of my own friends bought an iPhone 5 and tried to make me jealous, but I pointed out that his iPhone 4S didn’t last two years while my LG Optimus One has been running smooth for 4 years. Not to mention that it cost less than 1/4th of what the iPhone costed.

      • “The upper classes, however, usually are ‘dumb’…”

        Truer words have never been said. :)

  • Mike Bastable

    Interesting piece. Google it’s definitely losing control off the growth potential of Android, because geographically it is strong in the western countries. It will be interesting to see what happens in the emerging markets. What is clear is Apple still has an enormous cachet there and is seen as an aspirational purchase..they will see growth. Samsung can expect some serious competition from China and India oems…as Google does from local services. It will be interesting to see how Google copes and adapts..potentially being eclipsed by a Eurasian derivative of Android…
    The emergence of Tizen must also not be underestimated.

    • Aniruddh

      Samsung has a strong presence in India. At least in the mid-end and high-end ranges. The low-end is dominated by local OEMs like Micromax and Karbonn.

      • Mike Bastable

        I understood this to be the case which is why i believe Tizen will be important. Samsung will use Tizen to produce lower cost handsets and the Tizen ecosystem and app store to encourage local app development. To remain nr1 in volume sales Samsung will always need to dominate all segments in a market, be that a maturing Western or an emerging Indian marketplace.

        • Aniruddh

          But the thing is that most people understand the difference between Samsung and Android. If Tizen is up-to-the mark, which it likely won’t be for a few years, it won’t really turn Samsung’s fortunes around.
          Samsung really needs to take a Moto X like approach and instead of adding lots of half-assed features (smart scroll?) that hardly work and take up space, it should work on them ‘behind-the-scenes’ and only roll them out when they are ‘perfect’.
          Some of it’s features could be replaced by more reliable and less power hungry features. Smart View for example. It is only really useful (for me) if you are taking paper notes or something like that from the phone’s screen. And the moment I turn my eye’s away from the screen, it goes to sleep. Fail. Instant fail. A better alternative would be to have a option on the notification bar that prevents the phone from sleeping while it is checked. More reliable. Less battery consumption (Front camera is not on 24/7). For the folks who say that it is too much of an effort, Moto X style voice commands will solve it. If they work with Google to tightly integrate Google Now (which has great voice recog) it would be a win-win for everyone.
          Now I can understand why Samsung is attempting to branch away from Android. Samsung has a lot of money invested into it’s mobile business which is solely dependent on Google and Android. And last I checked, its mobile business made up a significant chunk of Samsung’s profits. Not-so-good from Samsung’s POV. If Google decides to stop developing Android in the future, Samsung instantly loses a lot of money and faces a huge cut in revenue and profits. Having it’s own OS would give Samsung much more security and freedom to do as it wishes.
          Here is some advice from me to you Samsung. Some of your recent moves have been Apple-like; trying to prevent users from 3rd party accessories, etc. This however represents the bad-part of Apple. The reason we hate it. The walled garden. Us technical folks chose Android (at least me!) because we love the fact that we can install a new ROM everyday. Make our device look and function like how WE want it to. The users control the phone.
          If you want to copy something from Apple, then copy the good parts. The tight integration between it’s devices. Stuff like that. Spend some time on your design language. Samsung is a great engineering company, but the reason Apple was a success was because Apple is a DESIGN company. Design with functionality. Optimise your software to take the full advantage of your hardware. Instead of staying on the bleeding edge, try to make older hardware run on-par with the newer hardware, bringing costs down.
          Every Apple device feels like an Apple device. They have a uniformity between them. We can’t say that for every company. As I mentioned before, tightly integrate your devices. Make them function and feel like one.
          And last, but not the least, work on your features. Again, I mentioned this before, but this perhaps is the most important point. Apple stuff just works. Half of Samsung stuff don’t work like they are expected to. I could never get Smart Scroll to work, but other stuff like Air View works. Stuff like Smart View, even Smart Pause.
          OMG that’s a big wall of Off-Topic text from me

          • Mike Bastable

            Off topic but interesting all the same. Agree with 99.9999999%.

  • WP

    Windows phone will rape everything else !

    • melhiore

      lol’d :)

    • Heisenberg

      You high Bro?!

  • Lisandro O Oocks

    I think in a way is smart for Google to not be #1 in China.. if they own little market share it’s less likely the Chinese Gov’t will hack into Google-China cause they won’t find much. At least that’s how I think of it.. maybe I’m missing some piece of the story.

  • Shark Bait

    “Panic may be premature” why panic?? Most of the percentage that is out of googles control is the Chinese market, which is mostly a straight port of the AOSP code. This means apps are compatible, giving a larger market and more money for devs, which is totally a good thing for us users.
    The only one who looses is Google because it misses out on money, which doesn’t affect the consumer , and monopoly’s are never good for any one.

    This discussion comes up time and time again. Its open source, and that was googles choice (and a good one) other are aloud to use it how they want and it only makes android stronger

  • Heisenberg

    I think the article is missing the fact that Google is moving keys parts of Android into it’s mobile services.