Google’s Astonishing Android About-Face

It can sometimes feel like there’s a surprise around every corner here in the Linux blogosphere, but it’s not often we get to see a company the size of Google make a dramatic shift.

That, however, is just what last week afforded when reports emerged that Google would take a markedly different approach to the launch this fall of Android 5.0, or “Jelly Bean.”

Not only is the company reportedly planning to expand its Nexus line for a range of multiple pure-OS devices, but — despite a distinct lack of success in the area in the past — it’s also apparently planning to sell those devices itself — at least, if a Wall Street Journal report is correct.

Is this a good move? A bad one? Here in the Linux blogosphere, we take Android’s success deeply to heart. Down at the Google+ Grill, the conversation hasn’t died down yet.

A Potential for Backfire

“I don’t actually feel that this is so much a shift in Google’s strategy as it is a combination of several of Google’s strategies,” suggested Google+ blogger Linux Rants, for example.

“This ‘change’ in Google’s strategy will not mean that you can’t walk into any Sprint or Verizon store in the country and buy an off-the-shelf Android phone from the carrier,” Linux Rants explained. “Hopefully, giving the [manufacturers] earlier access to the OS will allow them to adapt the OS to their devices more quickly — says the guy with the HTC Thunderbolt and nothing but promises it will ever get Android 4.0.”

There is, however, a potential for the move to backfire, Linux Rants warned.

Namely: “Why buy a phone from Google for (US)$399 when you can buy it from the carrier for $199 if you just renew your contract (which you’re probably going to do anyway)?” he said.

‘It’s Only a Matter of Time’

“I believe Google is consolidating its Android OS, making design standards, to decrease fragmentation,” suggested Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol. “So, they are going to set up those models as guidelines for the other hardware makers.”

Rumors also suggest, however, that Google will be “touching up Android’s UI — much like what they did with ChromeOS, with a taskbar and a start button,” Ebersol pointed out. “I see the signs pointing in the desktop direction, and, for that to happen, it’s only a matter of time.”

Bringing more mobile device manufacturers into the Nexus program is “a no-brainer,” opined Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

‘A Bit Ridiculous’

“Giving Google’s hardware partners access to the new version of the Android operating system after the launch of the next Nexus device and watching them scramble as they integrate the new operating system on their mobile phone line-up is a bit ridiculous,” Lim explained. “With more lead time, they should be able to update their devices faster and design phones which would meet the 18-month operating system support Google has been trying to impose.”

As for selling unlocked phones, “the idea does not seem to go well with a lot of the tech media based in the United States, but they are looking at things from the perspective of the US market,” Lim pointed out.

“In my own country — the Philippines — there are over 80,000,000 mobile subscribers, with less than 3,000,000 availing of postpaid lines,” he noted. “I would think a similar situation would exist in China, India and Africa, which make up a pretty substantial chunk of the smartphone market.”

‘Google’s Plan Is a Natural’

Indeed, “the North American mobile market is changing,” asserted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site.

Stats show that, for the first time, contract renewals are down,” she explained. “People are switching to pay-as-you-go plans that cost less than half as much per month, often with fewer limitations.

“These customers are buying their devices outright, not having the cost hidden away in an expensive multiyear contract, and Google’s plan is a natural for them,” she added.

‘Years of Voluntary Servitude’

Telcos currently “don’t have an incentive to offer software updates for any devices,” Hudson said. “Updates cost money to develop, test, roll out, and deal with glitches in the process. Even worse, from the telco’s point of view, an update might add new features that people could otherwise only get with a ‘free’ phone upgrade at contract renewal time.

“The ‘free’ phone, of course, is locked,” she added. “Think of it as their way of ‘thanking’ you for two or three more years of voluntary servitude.”

As wireless hotspots continue to pop up, meanwhile, “most people don’t really need a mobile plan that includes ever-larger gobs of over-the-air data,” Hudson opined. “As applications get better at storing data for ‘offline mode’ usage, even things like GPS map navigation won’t be dependent on a constant connection to draw the map tiles — they’ll just work like standalone GPS units, with the map data already stored in the device.”

‘It Is Very Compelling’

Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien called the move “an exciting development.”

To wit: “By giving this to multiple manufacturers, it could defuse any objection to letting Motorola Mobility have access to Nexus, since it would not be exclusive,” O’Brien explained.

Users, meanwhile, will benefit because it’s easier “to get the pure Android experience,” he added.

“The key is if they can hit the price point that makes this a good deal,” O’Brien concluded. “If the phones sell for $800 or so, it will fall flat. But I have heard the figure $349 thrown around.

“If they can get Galaxy SIII and HTC One X class phones at that price point, it is very compelling,” he suggested.

‘Their Only Real Shot: WebOS’

Indeed, “Google’s new direct sales plan seems good considering how bad the telcos can be at disabling phones/changing features or just adding unneeded crapware,” agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet wasn’t so sure.

“If the community has ANY sense, they will see the writing on the wall and will start pouring resources into their only real shot: WebOS,” hairyfeet suggested.

“Google is paying nearly a billion a year on Android, and they simply won’t allow people to have it for free forever, not when they can make a LOT more money by locking it to their own devices,” hairyfeet opined.

‘Anyone Else Feeling a Little Deja Vu?’

“I predict in the future the source will be slower and slower coming to give Google a much better position before it all but dries up for all that aren’t Motorola,” he added. “Apple has shown how much money you can make by owning the entire stack; no way Google is gonna flush a billion a year and not want a chunk of that.”

Android “did what they intended, which was get their foot in the door — now that people are hooked, they can close it,” he added.

“Anybody remember the old ‘Embrace, Extend‘ meme?” hairyfeet said. “Is anyone else feeling a little deja vu?”

In short: “If the community wants a chance, they better throw every man they can at WebOS, because otherwise it’s gonna be nothing but the big three: Google/Motorola, Apple, and MSFT, who will probably buy Nokia,” he concluded.

‘Too Good to Mess Up’

Blogger Robert Pogson saw it differently.

Google has made “a few technological blunders with Android/Linux, and it still thrived,” Pogson pointed out. “The idea is just too good to mess up.

“FLOSS works,” he added. “I expect with so many hundreds of millions in the hands of addicts and so many hundreds of millions of people familiar with Google and Android that whatever they do will succeed.”

Pogson’s main concern? “That the factories may not be able to keep up with demand and prices might remain higher longer,” he said.

Of course, “I expect as we saw with the x86 PC, consumers, retailers, OEMs and Google will evolve an ecosystem which works for all,” he added. “That requires some trial and error and survival of the fittest.”

‘No One Else Can Do It Better’

In any case, Google and Android are both “agile enough to survive and thrive no matter how the market evolves,” he concluded. “For everyone who now has an Android/Linux device, there are dozens more soon to acquire one.

“The Android/Linux device will be the pen, watch and telephone of the 21st century,” he opined. “No one else can do it better than the world creating its own software and sharing.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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