Facebook Home has just been launched and it is basically an Android home screen replacement. In mobile operating systems, the screen of apps and icons is basically an app in itself. That is called a launcher or a home screen. Those unfamiliar with Android should be informed that you can change your launcher without needing to root. Unlike iOS or Windows Phone, the operating system does not lock the launcher in any form allowing different launchers to be used easily. In the Android experience, launchers are customized by the phone maker. HTC has a Sense based launcher, Samsung’s TouchWiz launcher looks slightly different and so does Sony’s and the like. But the move by Facebook today seals a growing concern on what Android has turned out to be.
Android is open in many ways. It is firstly an operating system that can be modified in anyway you wish and you can even strip out Google’s services. The manner in which you customize Android on a system level affects whether your phone qualifies under the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). If you make overly drastic changes, you lose the ability to hook into Google’s services which includes their Play store containing over 600,000 apps.
Android has always been an easy way to create a new operating system with the flexibility of branding it completely your own.
Up till now, no one has bothered making a drastically different variant of Android that flatly failed to qualify for the OHA. Only Amazon has done so and you are unable to access the Play store. Amazon replaces it with the Amazon App Store. It must be noted that sideloading Play store apps works but most non advanced users will not do so. Google has, in this case, created an operating system that another company has used, modified and cut largely Google out of the game. While this is largely a non-story since Amazon and Google are not directly competing yet, Android has always been an easy way to create a new operating system with the flexibility of branding it completely your own.
I wrote previously that hardware manufacturers are getting sick of having zero control of the software end. Android’s openness and flexibility in accepting customizations made it a delectable haven for phone manufacturers to delve in. They branded it, modified the interface, changed the looks but kept all of Google’s hooks in the OHA in place. As such, Android phones by different manufacturers looked different but were more or less skin deep variants of a similar Google services driven device.
As of yesterday, everyone bar Amazon (who isn’t yet a direct competitor) have played cleanly on Google’s rules.
Google’s Android Motivation
Why did Google make Android? Android is the mobile conduit of Google’s core businesses. Web services and advertising represents Google’s bread and butter. Google understood that mobile computing was the next frontier and promptly bought Android before tweaking it to be a bedrock of the Google ecosystem.
So why is Android free? Because it is the Google way. Gmail, Drive, Search and nearly every Google service is free. Sure, there are the paid versions targeted and business but a massive proportion of Google users have everything for free. They are free because you are the product. The data you store in their services is analyzed for targeted advertisements. By knowing more about you via your mail, documents, search history and other service linked methods, Google builds a profile of you. Advertisers can then direct the right type of ads to you. This is why Google’s services are free for you. The advertisers pay for them so that they can get to you.
Android is the mobile conduit of Google’s core businesses.
A free and open Android enticed huge support from phone manufacturers who had to grapple with iOS’s first mover advantage in the market. At that point, Symbian was still #1, RIM (now Blackberry) was an enterprise king and Samsung was creating its own Bada OS. With a drastically different UI and a content consumption priority device, the iPhone caused Samsung to dump Bada OS for its premier phones and also forced companies like HTC, Motorola and Sony to ditch their operating systems to hop on a free Google solution. The ability to customize and brand it their way was an obvious hook. If Google had insisted that all phone manufacturers have to keep to a standard pure ‘stock’ experience from the start, I’m sure many companies wouldn’t have bothered. This is exactly why I think Windows Phone have a hardware manufacturer problem.
But all that made Android popular is slowly causing it to slip past Google’s control. The bright hive of Android devices with an international market share of 70% is dimmed by the fact that Samsung has turned so dominant that Android’s popularity to the mainstream crowd hinges on it. This is unheard of in the old days. Who would have thought that a software OS that is open to multiple manufacturers will turn dependent on a single one? It is like imagining Windows being dependent entirely on Lenovo. That sounds ridiculous, but this has happened to Android.
The dominance of Samsung has made Google uneasy.
The dominance of Samsung has made Google uneasy. It is almost certain that Samsung will not leave Google and turn its massive user base to its own ecosystem as yet, but the power it has garnered makes that possibility a legit one. The purchase of Motorola and the rumoured upcoming Google Motorola X project are piecemeal responses to this.
The Google problem with Android is simple on phones. People are beginning to identify Android not with Google but with hardware manufacturer brands. Sure, the tech crowd will always associate Android with Google but the bulk, the mainstream, does not. This is a problem for Google.
While Facebook has not done an Amazon and spun off its own OS based on Android, the step it took in creating a home screen replacement is a jarring one. While Android still forms the base of the platform, you do not get a single hint of Google besides a Chrome browser.
“You don’t need to fork Android,” Zuckerberg mentioned, to get a Facebook dominated phone. “The home screen is really the soul of your phone, you look at it about a hundred times a day.” And in this home screen, you do not see Gmail, you do not see Google+, no Drive, no Google services, zilch. You see Facebook Messenger, status updates, photos from your Facebook news feed and you are now immersed in the Facebook universe. Google’s open Android is now carrying a direct competitor’s suite of services designed to replace and eliminate Google’s very own.
Google’s open Android is now carrying a direct competitor’s suite of services designed to replace and eliminate Google’s very own.
The most damning part is – anyone can do it. Facebook Home is not by any stretch the first Android home screen replacement. There are popular ones like Nova, Apex, GO and a host of third party solutions but none of them has had the audacity to do what Facebook has done. Some of these are built by a single developer out of interest. There is no stopping Microsoft from creating their own home screen now to provide a live tile interface that is tied primarily to Bing instead of Google Search. Best of all, this phone qualifies to be kept under the OHA.
Yes, one would argue that people can still access the Play store and download Google Search, Gmail, Maps, etc if they wish. I agree. But Facebook Home is targeted at the mainstream and these people do not care about installing a whole suite of apps when Facebook has already conveniently placed replacements front and center of the device. This is why Facebook is partnering HTC to deliver the HTC First. It has greater ambitions than just replacing the Android home screen. Facebook has brilliantly invaded Google’s space because it was open in the first place. Open to competition that now sits right on top of it.
Out of Control
There is no way Google can re-exert control of Android just as much there is no stopping Facebook from moving past a home screen replacement to a full blown OS deviant after they have weaned the mainstream off Google’s services on a Google operating system. When Zuckerberg says ‘people not apps’, he means Facebook not Google apps.
When Zuckerberg says ‘people not apps’, he means Facebook not Google apps.
If Google attempts to tighten the bolts of the OHA, hardware manufacturers will lose their branding capabilities and Samsung will possibly switch to the Tizen backup solution it has been preparing all the long.
Google created a disruptive product that penetrated the market in ways Apple and Microsoft could have never dreamed of. However, the method of execution left it so open to competition that direct competitors can easily blind users from using Google’s services within its own phone. With Amazon and Facebook taking slow steps in using Android against itself, it is only a matter of time before Google republishes guidelines for the OHA and Android in general.
The brainchild of Google is about to run free and wild, right to the waiting arms of direct competitors.
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