Tablets, Phones, and Clouds

Google’s expected tablet announcement may be hours away, but some of the goals being set for it by the developers whose conference would be the platform for the launch seem unlikely to be fulfilled.  Developers want a unified platform for Android, but Google has clearly lost control over the Android development process and may never regain it.  If that’s true, then Microsoft has a real shot in the tablet space and, if it plays its cards right, might even have a shot at the phone market.

The problem with Android is the fact that appliance vendors typically customize the OS to their devices.  When a new Android version comes along (Jelly Bean is also expected today) it is quickly adopted by new devices but often takes a LONG time to percolate back to older ones.  That’s because the vendors see little value in spending the effort to retro the new OS to stuff already sold and not generating incremental profit.

Developers find that some features won’t work on current devices and have to either tune their apps to avoid hitting one or abandon the installed base of the older OS versions, which means less TAM for them.  In some cases the whole mess is an embarrassment; Google Chrome for Android works only on the current Ice Cream Sandwich release that’s not supported by the majority of Android devices!  I tried Mozilla Firefox, which is supposed to work on earlier Android versions, on my tablet (still on the older version because its ICS update was delayed).  It doesn’t work.

This puts the Google tablet, if there indeed is one, in a new perspective.  It may be that the primary goal is not to build an Apple-like ecosystem, it’s to force its appliance partners to retro their gear to be compatible with newer Android versions.  If Google commits to Nexus 7’s quick retrofitting with support in all forthcoming versions, it makes life really difficult for vendors who haven’t kept their own stuff up to date.  And since Google is making their rumored announcement of the tablet at a developer conference, might this not be a logical slant?

Google has a lot at stake here because it’s clear that the cloud acts as a kind of virtual appliance that envelopes all the real devices from the vendor.  If Apple continues to build affinity between its iCloud, iPad, and iPhone and if Microsoft (as it surely will) follows suit, then Google has to worry whether a developer revolt in Android tablets would limit Google’s ability to build a similar cloud bridge.  So this is what I think we should be looking for at this conference.  Google needs a developer community, not a technical version of the Balkans.  Are they taking steps—solid steps—to get that, or are they risking a loss of tabletshare that creates a loss of phoneshare, that opens the door for Microsoft?  We’ll see.

Of course, this sort of thing will also drive changes in mobile cloud services.  We already see vendors offering what are effectively virtual shared drives in the cloud.  Clearly we’re going to be seeing virtual shared apps.  I think it’s also inevitable that we start seeing apps that are componentized, with pieces running in tablets or phones or in the cloud depending on just what device capabilities happen to be and how efficient current connectivity is.  All of that will change the service-feature-SaaS opportunity for cloud providers, which changes the cloud business model.

Mobility and the cloud probably represent the Great Opportunity, the largest pie available for cutting because it crosses between consumer and worker behavior.  And while cloud projects at operators are mature and content projects are being run increasingly by operators themselves (who are disgusted with vendor participation), there is still a chance for vendors to seize the union of the cloud and mobile services.  Takers anyone?


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