In February I attended Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The event was well attended and seemed fairly positive for the industry.
The beginning of the week was taken up with the buzz from the Microsoft and Nokia announcement but the story faded as the week went on. It was interesting to see those suppliers of Nokia with their rabbit in headlights expressions on Monday mellow throughout the week. Maybe that was more due to sleep deprivation and alcohol abuse than any positive news from Nokia.
Whilst attending MWC is a must for me I do not necessarily enjoy the show itself. I remember that when the event was in Cannes and even when it first moved to Barcelona there was a real buzz around product releases. Maybe there still is that buzz but it does not capture me the way it did. I can spend a hour walking round the stands and see what I want to see with a glazed expression for most of the devices. I find nothing is really new anymore in the post iPhone world we live. It is mostly a game of ‘me too’ being played with little innovation especially in form factor.
Rise of the Robots
One standout in the sea of suits and glass was the Google stand. One word ‘WOW’. Google had a stand for the first time at MWC this year and what a stand it was! The green droid symbol was everywhere from pins to 3D models and even a huge droid with a slide around it’s side. The stand was always packed. Was that more to do with the free android platform themed smoothies or the aforementioned pins. There were a lot of demo’s going on around various android devices and the Motorola Xoom tablet which was all over the stand. Kudos to Motorola.
Every Android partner had an Android cutout with it’s hands holding a bunch of those pins. Apparently there were 86 different pins of various sorts that could be collected. Whilst day one was occupied with with Nokia talk day four was consumed with stand staff trading for swaps and others trying in vain to secure all 86 variants. Was this marketing genius from Google? Did they really mean the show to deteriorate into swap shop?
Within the sea of black shiny mobiles and tablets there were two standouts. The Motorola Atrix for innovation and the HTC Flyer for pure shiny factor. The HTC Flyer stood out from the crowd for me! For a start it was not black, it had a silver back much like the iPad and from what I saw of the demo it had a really good screen, very bright and dynamic and seemed to flow in a way the other Android tablets did not.
Attack of the Clones
Now I get it. Android is the best out of the box experience since the iPhone (certainly 2.3 is anyway) but I see a lot of problems in the ecosystem. Whilst experience is pretty good battery life is shocking, making the iPhone look Herculean in comparison with respect it’s longevity of operation. Certainly on the Nexus S I have far more dropped calls than any phone I have owned for years. The Nexus S is a performer but it is at the high end of what is available. I suspect some of these sub £100 Android handsets are lacking in terms of performance and experience. I recently played with a HTC Wildfire, whilst it was unmistakably Android it lacked the polish of a hi-res screen and fast processor of that of it’s siblings making it feel rather mundane.
I dare you to get all the recent LG, Samsung and HTC Android devices , put them in a bag, pick one out and ask an audience to shout out who the manufacturer is! No chance. They are all black, glassy, shiny slabs. Where is the differentiation? It is alright talking dual cores, GPU’s, memory etc to a techie but what about your average Jo on the street? It’s all about free minutes and Facebook. How is anyone going to choose from a sea of black in Carphone Wharehouse when you can’t even tell who the manufacturer is? Where does this commoditisation lead and who is making money from Android other than Google?
Commoditisation seems to be happening even quicker with tablets with high street stores like Next and Robert Dyas offering cheap sub £200 Android tablets. I confess not to have seen one in the flesh but I am sure the experience will be awful.
So where does this leave Android? At least Microsoft have produced a minimum chassis for Windows Phone 7 that means the hardware is capable of running the software as it was meant to be experienced. Are Google really happy to allow anyone that can throw some hardware together to run Android in a sub standard manner on their device? Whilst the hardware is not going to do anything malicious to your data it will be the difference between a device that is useable and one that isn’t. Currently there is no barrier to entry in this Android for everyone world, but should there be? I this something that Google should be working on as well as their UI fragmentation issues?