The Irresistible Rise of Android
Published 13:34, 06 November 12
In the wake of the news that Android sales now represent around 75% of the global smartphone market during the most recent quarter, there's still some surprise that this has happened. After all, this was a sector that Apple absolutely dominated just a few years ago. Some find it hard to understand how Android has pulled this off in just five years.
Of course, many of us in the open source world have been predicting precisely this kind of rapid rise to dominance. Android's open ecosystem, which allows all kinds of handsets to be created, for all price points, meant that smartphones employing it were able to explore niches unavailable to Apple. In particular, there was no barrier to producing ever-cheaper handsets, which are crucially important in developing markets like Asia and Africa.
To be sure, Apple is still making huge profits, and will continue to do so. Even Samsung, the most successful Android manufacturer, cannot touch Apple in that respect. But that's a problem for Samsung, not for the Android world. In particular, the huge growth in user base has started to impact the app ecosystem: there are now reportedly as many apps for Android as for the iPhone.
Nor will it end there. Success breeds success, and the huge lead that Android now has over the iPhone in terms of market share is bound to attractive ever-more developers. That's particularly the case since more and more iPhone apps seems to be free, so the premium pricing that once made Apple more attractive is no longer there to counterbalance the larger installed base of Android. Already the first signs of Apple fatigue among its users is visible. In the end, the only thing that Apple will be able to depend upon will be its loyal base of users and coders who wouldn't dream of buying or supporting anything else. But that will inevitably be quite a small, if remunerative, part of the overall market.
Android's rise in the smartphone sector is important not just because it confirms that an open source-based operating system can beat a closed-source one in this market; it also has implications for the tablet world. Once more, exactly as many of us have been predicting for a while, Apple's near-100% market share in this area is tumbling down to nearer 50%.
So far, that seems to be driven by reasonable sales of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, high levels of interest in Amazon's Kindle, and growing sales of the Nexus 7. In other words, the current fall has happened before the recent launch of the Nexus 10. Adding that to the mix, it's not hard to predict that Apple's market share in the tablet sector will follow essentially the same trajectory as for smartphones: a rapid fall down to (highly profitable) niche levels.
That's not to say that Android's rise is guaranteed. As is well known, the Android ecosystem faces a number of challenges - fragmentation and the rise of Android malware being perhaps the two most notable. These are things that Google must address urgently, although in the case of the Chinese market, it's hard to see what it can do to stop local variants flourishing. The best thing is to ensure that the official version is better than alternatives - always a good strategy.
There's a separate issue for the open source world. Although the rise of Android is a wonderful proof of the power of free software in general, and Linux in particular, it's troubling that the upper layers of Android remain proprietary. That means that Android users are not experiencing the full benefit of free software, but that Linux is simply a way of getting them to use closed source apps. More needs to be done, particularly in terms of creating open source apps and moving people to HTML5-based solutions, in order to avoid the victory of Android turning out to be a Pyrrhic one for open source.