When talking about success in the mobile device market, Microsoft isn’t the name that instantly springs to mind. Google yes, Apple yes, RIM maybe, but Microsoft? Although they have a version of Windows for mobile phones (the latest being Windows Phone 7.5) and although Windows 8 has some potential to increase Microsoft’s market share, Microsoft has failed to make it big on phones (or tablets).

Of course, that isn’t true for PCs. In fact, Microsoft is the overwhelming number one in terms of PC operating systems (Windows) and PC software (Microsoft Office). So, why has Microsoft been so successful on the PC and what can Google learn about this success when it comes to Android?

The fundamental difference between Microsoft and Apple in the PC market is that Microsoft doesn’t make any hardware. It licenses its software to hardware makers and ensures that it is compatible. Apple, on the other hand, makes the software (OS X) and the hardware (Mac). Both companies are successful but Microsoft is the clear leader.

Now, move into the mobile device space and we see the same pattern forming again, but, this time, between Google and Apple. Google doesn’t make any hardware (ignoring Motorola for the moment), but it does license its software (Android) to run on the devices made by the likes of Samsung, HTC, LG, and so on. Apple, on the other hand, makes the hardware (iPhone & iPad) and the software (iOS). Both companies are successful, and, this time, Apple, with its hardware/software combination, isn’t on a distant second place, but on equal footing with its closest rival, Google.

So, in the PC market, Apple’s holistic approach has been successful but not dominant. Whereas in the mobile device market, Apple is a force to be reckoned with. What did Microsoft do in the PC market that gave it that dominance over Apple, and how can Google reproduce the same effect on mobiles?

The answer, of course, is that Microsoft doesn’t make any hardware but licenses its OS to others. Google does the same, but why doesn’t it dominate the market like Microsoft does? I am tempted to tell you it is because Android is open source and this is leading to fragmentation, but that isn’t entirely true. There are lots of open source projects, the majority in fact, that aren’t fragmented.

The problem is twofold. First, the handset manufacturers need a way to differentiate their hardware in a saturated market. The second is compatibility.

Saturated market

Rewind 25 years – IBM is the de facto standard for PCs. Microsoft makes software that is compatible with IBM PCs. When IBM introduces something new, the industry follows (the PS/2 keyboard plug, that was so ubiquitous before USB keyboards, was an innovation made by IBM in a line of computers called the PS/2 range. The industry just followed IBM’s lead). Since Microsoft made software for computers that were compatible with the IBM standard, it didn’t matter to Microsoft which hardware manufacturer made the machine. So, for every PC sold, the hardware came from one of dozens (today hundreds) of companies, but the OS only came from Microsoft. This was a stunning success for Microsoft – while the hardware companies fought to try and differentiate their hardware and take a slice of the pie, Microsoft was guaranteed to be the OS supplier. This model worked so well that Microsoft became number one, and IBM eventually left the PC market, realizing that hardware became a commodity.

The situation is similar today. Handset companies like Samsung, HTC, Sony, and LG are trying to differentiate their devices (how big is the screen, how many megapixels in the camera, how many cores, and so on), while Android is the OS that runs on them all. But to make the handsets even more attractive, the manufacturers are also tweaking Android to bring better features that only work on their phones. This means that the version of Android running on any given phone isn’t actually a vanilla copy of what Google is offering. Because of this, Google has effectively lost control of Android. When Google releases a new version of Android, it now takes months and months for the handset manufacturers to get it out onto their devices and many just don’t bother.

The last thing handset manufacturers want is an equivalent of the “IBM compatible” standard but for mobile devices. The very thing Google needs (and consumers) is a “Verified Google handset compatible” standard. If such a standard existed, any user could upgrade their handset to the latest version of Android, as long as the handset was “Google compatible” and the manufacturer (or Google) had released the relevant drivers. But then handsets would become a commodity, something the handset giants don’t want. That is what killed Nokia in the low-end market.


It is the lack of compatibility which is causing so much pain. Almost daily, I talk with Android users who don’t understand why they can’t have the latest version of Android for their phone or why it is taking so long for their handset manufacturer to ship a new version.

Google isn’t making much money from Android. There are reports that, in its entire history, Google has only made $550 million from Android. In fact Google makes more money licensing its Maps and Search services for Apple to use on the iPhone.

Now that Google has put Android into a dominant position, it should use its influence to create a “Google handset compatible” standard that allows users to buy a phone knowing that it is supported by Google and that the updates from the phone can be found on Google’s website and not their handset manufacturer’s website.

To do this, Google needs to take a hard look at the CyanogenMod project (which supports an impressive and broad range of handsets/tablets) and start shipping its own version of Android for popular handsets. Since Google clearly has lots of money, it should basically give jobs to all the CyanogenMod project members and make it the official Google version. It should also use Motorola to enforce/encourage this, by making all future Motorola phone compatible to a standard that guarantees compatibility with any future release of Android.

This way, Google can become the Microsoft of the mobile device world… But then again, that is what Microsoft is trying to do with its tablet version of Windows 8. The hardware needs to be Windows 8 compatible… Come on Google, wake up!

What do you think?

Would you like to see a “Verified Google Android compatible” standard that would allow you to buy a device in the safe knowledge that it is compatible and ready to receive future updates? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer any sensible comments. Let your voice be heard, maybe Google will listen!

Gary Sims
Gary has been a tech writer for over a decade and specializes in open source systems. He has a Bachelor's degree in Business Information Systems. He has many years of experience in system design and development as well as system administration, system security and networking protocols. He also knows several programming languages, as he was previously a software engineer for 10 years.
  • Absolutely not since would slow down the progress. And well, there are also such devices – Nexus Phones.

    The average user doesn’t even care about the version he has or often doesn’t even know it.

    • The average iPhone user seems to care a lot about what version of iOS they have, so why don’t Android users??? Are they somehow different???


      • Apple use their new features, OS revision and the uniformity of their platform over all but the oldest devices to their advantage when marketing a new device. Unfortunately from what I’ve been reading carriers seem to be stone walling Google in this respect.

        I don’t believe that Android users are different, I just believe that they haven’t necessarily been made aware of the newer versions purely because Google can’t market it because they can’t make the newer versions available to all devices like Apple can.

  • Quickrunfast

    I agree that an average user may not care about which version of Android their phone has. However, I believe that it is also clear that Android is still a work in progress.

    Android phone software has not kept up with Android phone hardwear. The percentage of Android users using phones with older Android OSs is staggering. What Google and its partners need to realize is that when these user’s contracts expire they will base their decision on whether or not to purchase an Android phone on this older system. Based on my personal experience, many will not chose to stay with Android.

    • I think users care which version of iOS runs on their iPhone. Are we saying Android users aren’t the same??? The problem is that because upgrading is difficult or impossible then they don’t even think about it.

      >> The percentage of Android users using phones with older Android OSs is staggering.

      And this is because they can’t upgrade!


  • Milind

    In my mind, this is the single biggest problem with Android. If Google did nothing else for one entire release except focussing on a framework that will allow end users to *seamlessly* upgrade their phones to the current version of the OS, I’d be absolutley delighted. As a developer, I can say that the hardware fragmentation is completely overblown. It’s not that difficult to write code that works on various hardware. However the consumer fragmentation is a real problem. It has the nice side effect that app developers can quickly focus on the developing for the latest OS version taking advantages of new features, designs, security updates made. And when I say that every user needs to be able to update their phones tp the latest version, I don’t mean like CyanogenMod where it will still take a few months to build the latest version. Every phone sold in the previous 2 years at least should be updateable ON THE SAME DAY the new version is released. Not 2 months later, not 1 month later, not a week later, not a day later. THE SAME DAY.

    To do that, Google needs to take a page out of Microsoft’s Windows handbook and create a hardware abstraction layer that every phone manufacturer has to provide drivers for, *before* a new version is released. And it has to be updateable from Google’s web sites. The manufacturers can provide their UI based customization later if they need to. But consumers need to able to have the latest version available with the Google experience immediately.

    • >> Google needs to take a page out of Microsoft’s Windows handbook and create a hardware abstraction layer that every phone manufacturer has to provide drivers for, *before* a new version is released.

      Exactly! Well put.


  • Cole Raney

    I think there is another factor at work. Apple doesn’t overprice their iPhone as much as the overprice their macs. And the iPhone can compete with some high end android devices in power.

    • olbp

      LMAO. Don’t overprice their iphones? Ha. I’ll have to remember that one.

      • Cole Raney

        I’m not saying they aren’t overpriced. Learn to read. I said they aren’t as overpriced as their Macs are. The iPhone can actually compete with many high end android phones, and at $199 plus a two year contract, it’s a reasonable price honestly. Especially since you have some phones costing $299 with a 2 year contract.

        • I think the point is that “the market” decides the price. If Apple or Samsumg/HTC/LG think they can sell their phones for a higher price they will go for the higher price. The fact that all these companies are selling millions of these phones means that they aren’t overpriced. They might not be as cheap as YOU want, but you still bought one didn’t you!!!!

          Sure I can get a Chinese Android phone for $100, but does it compare to a $300 or $400 Samsung… hhhmmmm…. no!


  • 8PAQ

    Few notes:
    1. I am pretty sure it’s Google who is paying Apple for iOS device to have Google as default search and not other way around.
    2. Even in spite of point #1 Google is still makes more money of iOS than it does of Android.

    So basically Android is just an insurance policy for Google that they will not get locked out one day from mobile space by someone else controlling everything. At the same time Android is gigantic waste of money for Google because they could have just cooperated with Apple and make even more money on iOS that would have had 80% market share right now if not for Android. Instead they betrayed Steve and now they are billions of dollars win the hole due to Motorola purchase and Android development expenses. They could have used that money to fight their real enemy Facebook. Of course then progress in mobile space wouldn’t be as dramatic because Apple would have easily kicked everyone’s ass. I mean Samsung or HTC obviously don’t have the skill to write their own OS that would actually be any good.

    • With regards to who pays who, it is a bit complicated. For sure Google gives Apple money to be the default search engine but in turn Google make money from those searches. At the end of the day Google makes a profit from its arrangement with Apple. That is for search. For Maps it is likely that Apple pays Google!

      With regards to your other points, yes Google have a long term plan for Android, it isn’t about making all the money today. But also I don’t think Google are short of cash in its fight against Facebook.


  • olbp

    I fully agree, provided that Google can force a larger standard hardware set that will ACCEPT their official upgrades for a minimum of 3 years.

    I know that sounds like a long time for those of you who think of phones as toys, but some of us have families to care for and don’t like buying the latest and greatest toy every few months.

    • +1 from me for a minimum of 3 years of official upgrades!


  • gbgamer

    I personally think this is a really good idea. I would much rather use the vanilla version. Then Samsung could release their touchwiz, and I would install that.

    • Good point. If vendors want to add extra features they can make them available as installable addons. They can always check the hardware to make sure it is being installed on one of their phones.


  • Hi Gary
    Very well agreed with you but you also need to understand(Hope I am not being fool hardy to say so) that what google has made Open Source will not remain so if you were to follow what you have said it would make it that every manufacturer would not be able to put what they want in the customization department as it is in the case of windows you can only add or modify looks you can hardly modify any internal settings or custom built software into it.

    When we say about the manufacturer modifications they bring a lot of exciting stuff into the phones as when we look at Sony in Xperia line has Xperia UI which puts a lot of controls of the phone right on the screen. As Android is open source you are able to go to the level of total modification of the graphics and the audio which goes into the final release.

    I am an ardent fan of Xperia series though they have given the update for Android 4.0 in the series they have also done it very slow but when it has come out it is a pretty slick and perfected version of the android version which has come. Rugged and understandable.

    If it works as you say and the upgrade is made available the next day the problem (apart from becoming closed source) also will develop issues of compatibility with programs and due to which people will start looking for alternatives which will end the career of Android.

    When we talk about the success story of Microsoft we have keep in mind that microsoft also had its share of problems when Win Vista was released and people who bought PCs or Laptops with the OS were really irritated when they found that their programs and custom made software would not work there was a mad rush for downgrade to Win XP this finally led to the downfall of the OS same holds good for Win NT & Win ME.

    We just cannot follow whatever Microsoft did, I think and have good faith in google where it will find a naturally good way of getting us out of the problem regarding updates.

    When we come to Developing countries like India(From where i belong for instance) the prices are not like in the US the Galaxy series begins at something like Rs 8000/- Indian Currency for the Y model and the goes upto Rs 33,000/- for Note Model, same goes for other manufacturers they are pricey, but when you look at alternatives like chinese handsets they begin like Rs 3,500/- for a froyo model and Rs 4,800/- for a gingerbread model which gives a very good taste of the OS only slightly modified. Ok a bit slow but still an android.If it becomes as you say then all these manufacturers will be forced to upgrade hardware resulting in the hike of prices of mobiles, which is again an issue with us.

    So just hoping Google Thinks about all the Negative aspects of Google Approved Hardware before going ahead with it.

    Hope i haven’t messed it up.(Just what i thought)

    • Thanks for such a comprehensive reply!

      You have 8 paragraphs so I will reply to each paragraph numbering them as 1 to 8:

      1) By enforcing a hardware extraction layer or a verified hardware doesn’t mean Android won’t be opensource. All open source operating systems have to run on a defined hardware. Linux will only run on the hardware it recognizes, if you redesign the fundamental core of a PC it won’t boot Linux. There is a standard for PCs, what I am saying is that there should be for Android as well.

      2) The Xperia is really a hybrid so it doesn’t really apply, but it is also a good example of why I might be wrong!!!

      3) Good to hear that ICS is stable on the Xperia.

      4) The point is that Google ensure compatibility just like Microsoft do for Windows and Apple does for iOS.

      5) Sure and I have also written on this site that ICS could be Google’s Vista.

      6) I am just suggesting that Microsoft found a business model that worked and maybe that business model would work for Google.

      7) I don’t think hardware prices will go up with a verified handset program, in fact it will go down. Windows runs on cheap PC and on a very expensive PCs, but it is the same Windows.

      8) I don’t think Google are thinking about this right now.


  • Danny_muka

    I think that its better to let the manufacturers to make their own version of Android because they make it much better and more compatible on their phones from the original version from Google

  • J-Riz

    This is THE best commentary I’ve read on what Google needs to do. I’ve LONG thought that Google needs to try to be the Microsoft of the mobile OS, but this article outlines it nicely. The question is, “Does Google have the guts?” This will upset the handset manufacturers, but who cares? They NEED Android at this point. Google is in the PERFECT position to exert some control while keeping the open source nature intact. My previous suggestion was for them to modify the license to prevent core changes to the OS from manufacturers, but I think that the solution set forth by Mr. Sims is better.

  • Mesnit

    muy interesante, estoy pensando lo mismo. Es una vergüenza el tema de la fragmentación. Una excusa para tirar teléfonos que todavía podrían ser aprovechados.

    Los teléfonos son carísimos, unos 600 euros el galaxy S2 a su salida, pero con el cuento de las compañías telefónicas te lo dejan por 150 euros y te obligan a estar pagando 47 euros al mes durante 18 meses por ejemplo. Uno patéticamente dice que le ha costado 150 euros, pero hay que hacer un cálculo real. Con el cuento de yo no pago por un móvil, la gente es tonta y compra basura, pero un buen aparato podría durar varios años con buenos updates del sistema operativo.

    Realmente nos venden lo mismo pero en pequeño, me acuerdo de motorola que hizo un móvil superpequeño, pero entonces empezaron a salir las cámaras basura y las pantallas en los teléfonos, y éstos sin SD ni ninguna manera de transferir las fotos si no era pagando MMS. Vamos que esta proliferando el tema por intereses derivados…

    Como usuario de windows desde el win 3.11, no conocí a apple hasta hace 10 años, pero ahora veo a apple muy cerrado. La posibilidad de que cualquier fabricante pueda crear hardware para windows es buena, en cambio pierde en cuanto a optimización, pero gana en variedad obviamente. Apple da impresión de ser diferente, pero es penoso viendo el plan de monopoli. Tú, si Tú que tan orgulloso estas de estos productos apple nos averguenzas… No esta bien ser fiel a una marca, que solo piensa en dinero… Todavía no entiendo como no sale un iPad con microSD…

    El sistema de apple es bonito pero es odioso a la vez que ves que te obligan al mundo apple, eso son sus programas, sus accesorios, sus cables, sus caros aparatos…

    En cambio miras los tablet y móviles android y ves algo parecido a los PC&Compatibles de antaño.

    Claro que a los fabricantes les interesará que tires tu flamante viejo teléfono de 1 año para conseguir uno que pueda correr el nuevo sistema operativo android.

    Un caso es el del samsung galaxy S, que tuvo froyo, luego Jingerbread, pero no icecream sandwitch. Entonces yo tengo el flamante galaxy S2 con Jingerbread, ahora ha salido el ICS, pero tanta potencia no podrá con lo siguiente?

  • Meanie

    To do this, Google needs to take a hard look at the CyanogenMod project (which supports an impressive and broad range of handsets/tablets) and start shipping its own version of Android for popular handsets. Since Google clearly has lots of money, it should basically give jobs to all the CyanogenMod project members and make it the official Google version.

    The most funniest comment i’ve read for a while.

  • Tikboy000

    I totally agree with this!….companies should create drivers for their hardware that will work on the Android and not make Android work solely for their hardware…it’s like having a PC and installing a different flavor of OS every time your change out a component just because each component won’t agree with each other….Google should take charge and enforce standardization of Android

  • RSS70

    Google Android Compatible phones force hardware manufacturers into a commodity state, as you point out so well. So it is unlikely that phone manufacturers will do it.

    Moto may be the key for Google. Moto would have to take the lion’s share of the market due to its Google Android compatibility, to drag the other HW manufacturers kicking and screaming. Moto phones and release schedules have had enough issues, that this may be a tough hill to climb.

    The HW manufactures like Android because they can customize it. Take that away and they may as well sell Windows phones. I don’t think the HW Manufactures have Android religion, they want the OS that makes the most sense for their HW centric business case.

  • I find your comparisons between Google and Microsoft… disturbing.

    Microsoft does not owe its market dominance to innovation or even marketing, it owes it to monopoly. First with DOS and then with Windows, MS managed to get their product bundled on almost every new PC sold in the past twenty years. They leveraged that presence to dominate other areas, such as web browsers (IE is overwhelmingly the best browser for finding better browsers). Their Office products sell well, not because they are better than the competition, but because… that’s what everyone else is using. Bing is used by many people who don’t know how/can’t be bothered to remove it and replace it with Google search. In most areas where MS has had competition (Computer and networking hardware, phones, cloud computing, PDAs) they have been soundly trounced – in come cases, repeatedly (WinCE, anyone?).

    Apple have taken a different approach, their “walled garden” attracts those who want appliances (iPod, iPad, iPhone) and computer hardware that “just works”, and are willing to pay a premium for design and support. They now have serious market presence in music, movies, computers, phones and tablets. I will not comment on which company is more successful.

    Microsoft’s true genius is in their marketing. I know many people who have installed newer versions of Windows on older hardware because they “thought it would run better”, and now it is running slow – I’m the guy who solved the problem by a clean reinstall of the old version.

    It is Google’s sense of innovation and their “Don’t be Evil” approach that has distinguished them from the competition. They have always acted as if we had a choice. If Google started behaving like Microsoft, the same geeks who bought the world to their door will swiftly abandon them.

  • “Almost daily, I talk with Android users who don’t understand why they can’t have the latest version of Android for their phone or why it is taking so long for their handset manufacturer to ship a new version.”

    Custom updated ROMs for almost *any* device can be downloaded for free from xda-developers.com

  • SamsaraGuru

    Thank you Gary for a very insightful article that both sheds light and proposes solutions – not often one sees those two points combined!

    I believe you are correct in saying what is necessary is

    “… a Verified Google Android compatible” standard that would allow you to buy a device in the safe knowledge that it is compatible and ready to receive future updates.”

    Google needs to step up to the plate and not just passively work in the background. What they have done would roughly be equivalent to what happens when people have children and then fail to spend anytime raising them and teaching them and hope they will “figure it out on their own.” Yeah, sure that works – the prisons are filled with perfect examples of the efficacy of that approach.

    Yes, I know, as an analogy my example will be found wonting and less than perfect – but no analogy ever has been truly spot on, dead accurately equivalent; that’s why they call examples that are similar to a point to a point in question and given to help illustrate and elucidate a point analogies not the same exact thing!

    Yet, to a none too small degree this is what has happened with Android. Google gave birth to a great “eureka” idea that the market needed to break the stranglehold that Apple had on the market and the market did and continues to respond by smiling beneficently upon the servants and subjects of Android, but to say there is trouble in paradise is a gross understatement.

    Children need discipline; they fight it, they tell their parents “I hate you” when the parent imposes it for the good of the child, yet how many of us would have survived to adulthood if we had had parents who said to us at the age of 10, “Now Johnny, I don’t want you to play in the street, certain bad things might happen, so today when we go to Times Square and I leave you alone near the Port Authority Bus Terminal and go off to pursue my own interests as I see fit – irrespective of their ultimate impact on you or basically anyone else – I expect you to behave.”

    As things stand now, what underlies the actions of all the major players – because Google didn’t and hasn’t taken full responsibility for that which wrought by creating Android and NOT thinking it through properly, is a chaotic, confusing mess underlain by selfish self-interest and greed with everyone doing their damnedest to try to twist both the operating system as well as the devices they make into something, anything that will somehow, maybe, perhaps yield at least a minuscule degree of differentiation and help them “make a sale”.

    AND it is not going to get better, unless Google actually makes it so. The freest people in the world are also the most disciplined individuals because they realize that if they are not disciplined everything will spin out of control.

    The fact is Google is the only force powerful and rich enough to bring the rowdy bunch of immature and selfish “children” they have unleashed upon an unsuspecting world into line and make them start behaving like grown ups – whether they like it or not.

    If Google does then what we are going to actually have is a true juggernaut of an operating system where the focus truly is on serving people – as I think – maybe I am mistaken – but as I think is supposedly one of the goals of Google’s founders and its corporate philosophy and echoed in the words “Don’t be evil.”

    Allowing avarice to fuel and take over one of one’s creations doesn’t seem to me to quite qualify as being in keeping with that goal.

  • Olive55

    I fully agree that Google should set a standard hardware format for android phones so that future upgrades are possible. Time is not so important people can wait for a month or so for UI adoption. At present what phone companies are doing is that they are raking in huge profit when the system upgrades. They continue to sell previous version android phones cheaper. Although this is like modern P.Cs coming with windows 97 or windows 2000.
    Maybe that Google can’t do much about it because the Androids new versions are processor and RAM dependent which keep on upgrading. Quality of camera and display are also dependent on the processor. So it will take some time before any minimum standard can be set for Android phones. When all phones are at least dual core.

  • RandomReader

    As customer, I agree with you Gary. If you take a close look at MS products, MS allows custom branding of most of it’s products, including Windows OS (if u recall Win9x, software channels, Active desktop etc).

    Google should provide some soft of Android customization kit for Phone manufacturers, which should take the customization headache and delay off Phone manufacturers head (which is not their forte anywary), and in turn might reduce the Android fragmentation.