When the HTC G1 appeared in 2008, there was no suggesting that Android could run anything but a phone. Since then, Android has dominated the smartphone market and begun to appear on other types of devices. While Android is far from market saturation, it’s time to wonder whether it’s captured as much of the market as it’s going to. Therefore, what should Android be used for next?
The battle for the living room
Coming up with an effective interface for a so-called Smart TV has been the holy grail of most tech companies, but so far nobody has developed a system that has truly taken off. Various companies are already experimenting with Android dongles for the TV (see our feature) which is a step in the right direction. The problem is that these devices are for a niche market – and that niche is made up of the people who would actually seek out such a device – otherwise these dongles are not well known. Most of them also suffer from the age old problem that has plagued all home theatre PCs (HTPCs), i.e. controllers.
The only groups that seem to have got this right are the people who only make media server software such as XBMC and Plex, who put the remote control in an app for your tablet or phone. Most people have their phones at their side all the time, and so it makes sense that the phone should be the controller. A touch device can have a completely configurable interface (i.e. not restricted by physical buttons) and there would be no issue with connecting or pairing the two devices, as they would presumably be on the same Wi-Fi network.
Controllers aside, Android is well placed to be the basis for a smart TV system because of its open environment. This would also be an area in which custom skins would be more acceptable, as consumers are used to different TV brands having different menu designs, and so there wouldn’t be quite the same push-back as there is by smartphone enthusiasts.
There would, of course, be an advantage in standardising the device to a certain degree so that the Play Store may still be used, as the app ecosystem is Android’s other big advantage. Being able to run apps on the TV, whether it be 3D games or content delivery applications such as BBC iPlayer, NetFlix or even a podcast client, is what will hook users into actually wanting to buy in the first place, and staying engaged.
There is of course, the problem with a multi-user environment. With third party services, it is going to be the user’s job to create family accounts and to authenticate them. However, Google could should create a structure for ‘account groups’, so that content purchased from Google Play Music or Movies purchased by one member of the family would be available to others (not just trial plays as is currently the case). I’m sure this idea would send rights holders into conniptions. However, I don’t see this as any different from spouses sharing a book or DVD. Alternatively, an Android Smart TV system could support the same multi-user system as found on Android 4.2.1 – this would be easier but less elegant.
Android Smart TVs are going to have to be gaming-capable too. The idea of stand-alone games consoles is going away (unfortunately for the likes of Ouya). This is evidenced in how the established games consoles have become home media centres too. Consumers want as few devices underneath their televisions as possible, and consequently as few cables as possible. Why have a separate games console when you can have something that will fetch all your content AND play games?
Staying on the theme of minimising the number of boxes beneath the TV, there is the dilemma of whether an Android Smart TV should be a separate device that connects to the TV set or whether everything should be built into the TV itself. Manufactures would love the latter as it would inevitably speed up the upgrade cycle for TVs. However, flat panel displays do not come cheap, and so – sadly – having the Android ‘brains’ in a separate (and changeable) box would be the most pragmatic solution. The best of both worlds would be to have a standard card slot on TVs for an Android ‘brain’ to dock into, but it’s unlikely we’ll see manufacturers cooperating to that extent.
I recently questioned whether Android could replace Windows, and concluded that it wasn’t a realistic possibility given the massive user base and industry acceptance of Windows. There was a caveat to that defeatist conclusion in that there are many individuals for whom using an Android system is a realistic alternative to a Windows machine. This is because less technically inclined users are simply living in a browser, and so wouldn’t know or care what operating system they’re using as long as they can launch a browser.
Furthermore, the app environment is more controlled in Android than desktop Windows, however Windows 8 and RT are catching up in that regard, but there isn’t the same breadth of apps as on Android. With the multi-user support present on Android tablets, the idea of an Android desktop, or at least an ‘Android family computer’ becomes much more realistic.
Google is also pursuing Chrome OS – see our feature on the potential of Chrome OS. The problem here is that Chrome OS and Android are too different – they are totally different ecosystems – the fact that they both run the Linux kernel is irrelevant. Does Google really need to be putting resources into two ecosystems?
Android is perfectly able to run in a desktop context, one could argue more so than Chrome OS. While Google may be following the same pattern as Apple’s OS X and iOS, Microsoft is the target to take on. While Google is dividing its efforts between two operating systems, Microsoft is working to unify its platforms. So far it has succeeded in getting its PC, tablet, and smartphone operating systems running the same kernel and sharing many APIs, and there are hints that Windows Phone will ultimately share the same app store as Windows 8 and RT.
This isn’t about what’s best for the companies concerned, but about user experience. Android is in healthy a position to fend off Windows RT and Windows Phone 8, but is Chrome OS taking attention away from the already thriving Android ecosystem at the cost of effective competition against Windows?