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

There is a massive Android ecosystem that doesn't depend on Google and it’s growing rapidly. Is there a danger that Google could lose control of Android? We take a look at what it all means.
April 3, 2014
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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.

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.