Android Opportunity Addenda

Follow-up points and observations regarding “The Android Opportunity”:

Several readers asked why I focused only on Android, and not Palm. Clearly Android and WebOS are similar in terms of potential — these are the only two other mobile platforms that interest me. But Palm is in a very different situation. They’re pretty much following the same strategy as Apple (and RIM for that matter): designing and building their own integrated hardware and software. Apple and RIM have shown that this model can work well, so for Palm, the direction is clear. It’s just a matter of execution.

Android, on the other hand, strikes me as needing a course correction. There’s a separation between the software and hardware, and to date the hardware vendors are letting the platform down. It’s unproven whether this model can even work in the long run (where by “work” I mean “produce a phone and software platform with a state-of-the-art user experience”). Maybe it won’t work, but it doesn’t seem like the Android hardware vendors are even trying.

I’m not arguing that Android handset makers need to beat the iPhone in every regard. Being “better” than the iPhone in every way is not feasible, because the iPhone is really good. What strikes me about all of the Android criticism I’ve seen is that it’s not unreasonable. This is not a boil-the-ocean proposal. If no Android handset maker can make a device that’s merely as good as the iPhone, then what’s the point? One might argue that Android devices will fill out the middle range of the market, but if Apple continues taking the iPhone down the same path it has with the iPod, they’re going to fill out the mid-range market themselves incrementally, year after year. If there’s no $99 Android phone that competes with the $99 iPhone 3G today, what’s going to compete with the 3GS if it drops to $99 a year from now after Apple introduces the next new top-of-the-line iPhone?

The high end of the market is where you can gain a foothold, a market position to grow from.

Display, processor, RAM, storage capacity, build quality. Match — or come really close to matching — the iPhone on these criteria and then add just one thing that beats it, at least for some segment of the market. This is where there’s room for several Android handset makers to flourish. Say, one with an amazing camera. One with twice the battery life. (Or even better, combine those two, and when you make room for the bigger battery with a thicker case, use the extra room to add a larger camera sensor.) But add at least one thing that might make some iPhone owners envious — something to hang your hat on.

Don’t screw with the software. Let Google worry about that. The whole advantage Android offers for handset makers is that they only have to worry about the hardware — but so far they can’t even get that right.

If I were the sort of person who regularly quoted Yoda as a source of wisdom, I would remind you of his criticism of Luke from The Empire Strikes Back: “This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away — to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was.”

I worry that’s going to be the Android community — forever talking about the next year’s batch of phones, because the ones available now just are second-rate.