Android operating system and icons
Pick and mix: as the Android operating system is open-source, anyone can change it, add to it or take bits away © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The phone in your pocket is probably an Android device, and if you live in a western country, it is almost certainly running the Google version of Android and thus is bristling with Google’s services: Gmail, YouTube, Docs and more.

The raw figures for Android’s market share make it look as though Google dominates the smartphone world: of the 301.3m smartphones shipped in the second quarter of this year, 84.7 per cent were Android devices, up from 79.6 per cent in 2013, according to analysts IDC. But those figures hide a more complex story about how difficult it is to build an ecosystem and bring customers into it.

The next biggest player on the mobile OS scene is Apple, which in September made a bold bid to draw users further into its clutches with the launch of a wearable device, the Apple Watch, and, more importantly, its Apple Pay system.

Apple’s iOS has been losing market share, according to IDC: in the second quarter of this year, it accounted for 11.7 per cent of mobile device shipments, down from 13 per cent in the same quarter last year. Apple’s early-mover advantage has been eclipsed by the roaring success of Android.

Google maintains and develops the “official” version of Android, but the operating system itself is open-source, which means anyone can fiddle with it, change it, add to it and take bits away, as Amazon and Nokia, for example, have done with their operating systems have done with their operating systems for, respectively, the Kindle Fire and the Nokia X range.

Google leads the Android Open Handset Alliance, an association of device-makers such as Sony, LG, Samsung and Lenovo, mobile operators such as T-Mobile and Vodafone as well as chipmakers Arm, Qualcomm and Intel, and software companies, including eBay and, of course, Google.

In return for membership of the OHA, members can create devices that Google will license its services to. It is important to note that while Android itself is open-source and free to use, Google’s services are not. Members of the alliance also pledge not to “fork” Android – in other words, create their own versions that exclude Google services.

This is all great for Google, as it means its data-collecting apparatus, with its access to your email, searches, location data and so on, is in the hands of millions of people to whom “relevant” adverts can be directed.

There is, however, a big part of the Android ecosystem that is nothing to do with Google. This is most significant in China, where Google and its services are persona non grata. But there are also trouble spots on the radar outside China that should worry Google.

Google’s biggest concern is Samsung. The search giant’s relations with the South Korean smartphone maker have been strained, as Samsung has fired warning shots that indicate it probably doesn’t need Google as much as Google needs Samsung, which is by far the biggest vendor of Android OHA devices.

Samsung has been tinkering with an alternative operating system, Tizen, and includes its own mail and other services alongside Google’s on its Galaxy Android devices. In theory, Samsung could drop Google’s version of Android and focus on developing Tizen further or move to the non-Google version of Android.

That version is the Android Open Source Project – the one developers work with when they don’t want to join forces with Google. AOSP is free and is the version that Amazon has used in its Fire devices. Nokia used AOSP to create the well-received Nokia X range before Microsoft assimilated Nokia’s devices division and killed the project.

Amazon and Nokia would do well to look to China, where local providers have built strong ecosystems on the AOSP version of Android. In hardware, Xiaomi has 31.6 per cent of the urban Chinese market, according to Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel, the market research company. “Xiaomi is the model that works,” she says.

What works in China is a package of services delivered via the hardware. At the end of last year, Gartner, the research company, noted: “Chinese-based internet providers, such as Baidu, Alibaba Group and Tencent, [are] providing local featured apps, services and content through app stores that they themselves operate. This participation is preventing Google from being a major beneficiary of smartphone user growth in the China market.”

If Google has lost out in China, it could lose out elsewhere. Microsoft is keen to get its services –, Bing, Office and OneDrive – into more hands, and while its Windows Phone OS has been well received, its market share of just 2.5 per cent in the second quarter of this year means it has a long way to go.

Intriguingly, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella has been reported as talking to Cyanogen, which maintains a popular AOSP fork of Android. While Microsoft is unlikely to be considering buying Cyanogen, partnering with it to provide services as part of the package makes sense.

Here’s a blue-sky suggestion for Mr Nadella: sit down with Jeff Bezos at Amazon to develop a good fork of Android. Microsoft has a compelling services offering but an almost non-existent platform for these services, despite the quality of the Lumia handsets. Amazon has compelling content with its Prime video but seems unable to get consumers to buy its Fire devices.

For smaller providers, a Microsoft-Amazon-style joint venture would be a great way to become part of an ecosystem out of Google’s reach. I suspect consumers would find that attractive. How about it, Satya and Jeff?


Apps to keep you in touch

Facebook Messenger
All platforms, free

Facebook Messenger has been around for a while as a standalone way to send messages to your friends on the platform, but now that Facebook has disabled the ability to send messages from within the app, avoiding it is more difficult. Concerns about the permissions the app seeks are overstated, but that does not stop it being a dreadful app that adds nothing useful. The most infuriating “feature” is that you can’t turn off notifications permanently: you can only disable them for an hour, or until 8am. That means your device will alert you to messages whether you want to know about them or not. Avoid – use the mobile website via your browser instead.

iOS and Android, free

One of the many alternative personal information manager (PIM) apps in a crowded space. This one filters email into a “focused” and “other” inbox, sifting mail from people you deal with most to the former. Two good things in its favour: it works with Exchange, which many third-party mail/PIM apps don’t, and the People view usefully puts your most recent contacts at the top and offers options to see any calendar events they are noted in and any documents you have shared with them via email. You can attach documents from Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive – again, many third-party apps don’t support the last of these. A minor quibble is the lack of linking to Facebook events.

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