Android has been on a roll, but could it possibly sustain its growth?

There's no doubt regarding the appeal Android has in populated emerging markets such as China and India. Between the two nations, we are 36 percent of the world's population! In terms of sheer volume, Android has scaled newer heights each year. And is the undisputed leader when it comes to smartphone shipments.

There's no doubt regarding the appeal Android has in populated emerging markets such as China and India. Between the two nations, we are 36 percent of the world's population! In terms of sheer volume, Android has scaled newer heights each year and is the undisputed leader when it comes to smartphone shipments.

There are several reasons for that. A commonly quoted problem with Android is the inherent fragmentation. According to the latest data shared by Google, KitKat is the most popular flavour of Android with 36.6 percent distribution share. This is closely followed by Jelly Bean which is split between 3 API versions (16, 17, 18) adding up to 26.9 percent. The newer Marshmallow update powers less than 1 percent of devices running Android!

Android has been on a roll, but could it possibly sustain its growth?

The share of Android platforms. Image: Google

There are two primary reasons for the extent of fragmentation in the Android ecosystem. For one, the price points at which devices are launched span the entire gamut. You could get yourself a Swipe Konnect 3, for instance, at Rs 1645 online. In contrast, a high-end, 128GB Android flagship could hover around the Rs 50000 zone. That's only speaking about the popular brands. A closer look at luxury brands, would bring devices such as the Ulysse Nardin Chairman and similar smartphones by luxury brands that go well over Rs 100000!

Effectively that's a 100 times the base price of an entry level product. With a range so wide, specifications are carefully decided to target the appropriate audience. In constrast, the iPhone pretty much does it for you. There's just one device available every year. Two, over the past few years, but that's about it. You'd probably never see a wide portfolio of iPhones launched in a single year, unless Apple eventually decides to go the Android way.

Essentially, Android's strengths and weaknesses come to the same point – fragmentation.

According to a recent report in Business Insider, there are well over 24,000 Android devices manufactured by over 1,300 brands. A lot of these run "forked" versions of the platform with operating systems built using the Android open-source kernel but maintained by the respective manufacturer.

As far as apps are concerned, the Google Play Store is a leader by a significant margin. Since all of this is indicative of the rise and rise of Android, what makes it worth pondering is the comparative yearly growth as seen over the years.

According to JunHong Park, Analyst at S&P based in Hong Kong, “commoditisation could be a driver for further innovation, especially leading players like Apple and Samsung. In order to keep leading shares in the industry, they need to make higher investment in advanced technology and innovative software and develop next generation smart devices.”

Effectively, fragmentation in the Android ecosystem is resulting in budget devices with a larger feature set. The result, is a tapering off in high end devices. It isn't entirely surprising then that growth is rather sluggish, a trend also echoed by the recent IDC report.

However, an interesting observation made by Park, “We think commoditisation could pose a bigger threat on Samsung than Apple mainly because of Samsung’s somewhat weaker software and brand image than Apple.”

Since Apple is clear about its premium positioning, it has captured a dominating position in the premium market, which also reflects in a higher app revenue, from paid applications on its App Store. That's primarily why advertisers and marketers prefer iOS users over Android users. In contrast, the Android Play Store is ridden with redundant apps, many with rogue code that has compromised security, and in effect, consumer trust.

Security companies have repeatedly highlighted vulnerabilities in the Android ecosystem as a result of bad code in its free apps that steal sensitive personal information that could be compromised. A simple example being the Stagefright vulnerability which left over 1 billion Android devices vulnerable!

These are areas where Android would have to pull itself up, if it has to sustain the phenomenal growth it has been enjoying over the years. Google is aware of its challenges, and has been trying to hedge itself by investing proactively in autonomous cars, wearables, and even internet infrastructure to enable smarter technology.

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