The Next Frontier for Android - Overcoming Experience Gaps
- Ankush Chatterjee from Aricent takes a look at the importance of applications in overcoming the user experience gaps in Android.
The sheer market power of Google, the attractiveness of the platform's open environment for developers, an expanding number of connected consumer electronics, and an estimated 40 Android-based handsets planned to ship in 2010 are all creating momentum for this technology.
Following the launch of the first Android phone, Google has made four major upgrades to the operating system - the latest version is Eclair (2.0 and 2.1). Device manufacturers are struggling to catch-up with such developments as it can take more than a year to develop a new smartphone, meaning that new devices are launched with older versions of the OS that don't offer the latest features consumers expect. This is also a developer's nightmare, as new applications need to be tested for all versions on the market.
According to Gartner, Android could account for the second highest market share of mobile operating systems by 2012. The key challenge for commercialising devices based on the Android platform is creating an unparalleled customer experience comparable or better than more mature technologies and closed systems. As with any new OS platform, certain challenges or 'experience gaps' must be overcome to create a competitive user experience.
Fragmentation - different flavours of Android
Operators, device manufacturers and developers face a real menu of options when it comes to designing, developing and delivering on the promised user experience. With the dessert-inspired variations of Android all offering different options and levels of customisation, the industry is faced with a mouth-watering choice between Cupcake (1.5), Donut (1.6) and Eclair (2.0 and 2.1).
Each version has its own set of supported features and a separate SDK (software development kit). This means that developers have to develop and test on four different major operating systems to ensure their creations work properly.
As if this complexity isn't enough already, phone manufacturers tend to customize the OS with their own applications and UI - HTC refers to its customized flavor of Android as Sense while Sony Ericsson's version is called Rachael. With every new Android release, manufacturers have to upgrade their custom UIs, port all their applications, test them, and then go through another series of testing with the carrier, delaying the implementation of new versions of Android, creating greater fragmentation in the market and putting further pressure on the experience gap.
Indeed, such is this pressure that most mobile devices based on Android are still running older versions of the OS. About 70 percent of devices use either Android 1.5 or 1.6. Android 2.1 is catching up with 27 percent market share, according to data from the Android Developers Community.
Google is addressing this fragmentation problem with the launch of the next major platform version, Froyo, and will continue with the release of the Gingerbread "flavour". In both versions Google will take many Android standard app and components off the core and offer them for download via the Android Market.
What does that mean? At the moment Eclair comes with Google Navigation, YouTube, etc, as well as the manufacturer's customised features and apps. Google believes that by offering Froyo (Android 2.2) without all the included apps and setting that standard, it will be easier for users to access the latest application, regardless of the manufacturer. So for users with a Froyo or Gingerbread (Android 2.3) handset there won't be much differentiating two phones running either version of the OS.
Furthermore, Android is expected to reach its development maturity as soon as Froyo is here, switching the focus towards applications and features. Ultimately, this means that there will be fewer major releases from Google, making it easier for manufacturers to keep up with newer versions of Android.
But while the launch of Froyo is expected to greatly relieve the fragmentation in the market and so leave developers to focus on new apps and handset manufacturers on the user experience, in the interim, closing the experience gap takes resources and expertise that are beyond the in-house scope of many companies.
Leverage the Power of the 'Cloud' in Applications Development
To this end, software vendors and an ever growing community of mobile developers are demanding the flexibility to develop powerful applications with minimal platform roadblocks. The recent explosion in social networking and other forms of collaboration has fuelled this further. Moreover, major devices ODMs are seeking stable and affordable platforms to build a unique and differentiated portfolio of devices, to counter the 'iPhone' phenomenon.
The convergence of cloud services with global consumer mobile communications networks is a key trend. Network operators are developing APIs to offer Cloud Service Providers a single point of access to their network capabilities and global customer base. This form of convergence is likely to drive a surge in mobile Internet innovation, and improved subscriber experience overall.
Android can be a potential game-changer in this space and while its openness is a clear advantage, there are aspects of application development on Android that needs to be recognised and addressed by device ODMs.
With each major release, SDKs and APIs are constantly being modified to support new features and fix defects from earlier releases. Moreover, there are scores of new Android handsets being launched, each with a different version of Android. This will pose a significant integration challenge for software developers as the same application may not work across all phone models and will require maintaining phone model specific application versions, which is a developer's nightmare.
Another related issue is the current Apache 2.0 Licensing model of Android, which gives device manufacturers flexibility to change all or some of the software libraries to develop their own custom version of Android.
All third party applications must be written for the native virtual machine called Dalvik VM. What this essentially implies is that non-Dalvik libraries, and hence applications based off them, cannot be deployed on Android handsets.
Other gaps exist in the support and integration of core applications such as Telephony which has always been an issue on any Mobile OS platform as it entails integrating and adapting modems to enable voice, data calls and other network related functions. But the real challenge comes when modems from different vendors, each supporting a different set of AT commands, needs to be adapted and integrated with Android's Telephony Manager.
Implement a Comprehensive Product Assurance Strategy
And finally, the advent of new connected devices and next-generation applications is driving vendors to rethink their entire testing methodologies, leading them to perform a comprehensive UI audit to provide more value through customisation and personalisation, and for ensuring a consistent and coherent branded experience.
Android smartphones support multiple wireless access capabilities i.e. Wi-Fi, 2G / 2.5G / EDGE, 3G and Bluetooth, leading to a manifold increase in the complexities of interoperability.
Another key challenge is to ensure that existing products and new services are interoperable, given the constantly changing technological landscape. This complexity is further compounded by the presence of equipment from a multitude of vendors and the exponential growth in operator networks. Hence, extensive Interoperability Testing (IOT) becomes a key success factor prior to a launch.
Further, testing and validation of the various hardware and software components, including review of key user experience characteristics such as audio and video performance, security, and power consumption is essential.
The ODMs must also ensure interoperability with the myriad global wireless communication networks in place today. This complexity, if not understood early in the lifecycle process, has prevented many innovative concepts from ever being realised. In fact, end-to-end testing covering multiple sub-systems and often, the entire network is becoming the norm and needs to be complemented by a comprehensive set of lifecycle services.
To ensure complete interoperability, the devices must be tested on all the network interfaces with various elements in a live environment. For the service providers, this is an expensive proposition as the costs associated with a variety of test equipment are high. Additionally, with increasingly shorter time to launches, correct planning and flawless execution is imperative, failing which the expenses further escalate.
Android is a true game-changer in the mobile space, more effectively addressing the two fundamental shifts in consumer electronics - all things connected, and exponential growth in consumer expectations on innovation and improved usability. This is the era of open operating systems and the growing market adoption of the Android OS on multiple devices and the emergence of an ecosystem of active application vendors creating new, innovative solutions clearly underline the trend. Over time though, device ODMs and chipset vendors need to transition from 'Android as an OS' to 'Android as an enabler of unique experiences'.
The introduction of Froyo and subsequently Gingerbread will help to turn Android into an 'experiences enabler' by providing a stable and long-term platform. It will also relieve the current market fragmentation created by the release of different versions of the OS in a short period and empower end-users, who will now be able to download the latest version of desired applications. That means the Android community will finally be able to concentrate on developing new applications and a superior experience.
In order to deliver highly differentiated Android based offerings, there is a clear need to address the 'experience gaps'. Success or failure on this new OS will ultimately depend on the user experiences offered to consumers in the new experience era, and so industry players need to strive and elevate the basic Android Experience.
Ankush Chatterjee, Sr. Manager of Segment Marketing, Aricent, has over 12 years of extensive product marketing, product management and engineering experience. He drives the segment marketing initiatives for Aricentís Emerging as well as CSP business units. At Aricent he has been instrumental in successfully launching key offerings including Aricentís Android Practice and Multimedia offering: MediaEXPTM. .
Ankush has a Bachelors in Engineering from Jadavpur University, an MS in Management from Northwestern University, an MBA from Kellstadt Graduate School of Business and he is a graduate from Harvard Business School's flagship general management program.