Android’s identity crisis seems to be growing

November 30, 2011

Last week I was at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner, when amid a typically busy (and loud) conversation, someone blurted out something that made my ears perk up: “I hate ‘Droids!’ ”

This sparked a quick — but heated — discussion at the table about how Droids were too complicated, too nerdy, and, worst of all, had bad ads. “Those ads are scary,” one person said. Another chimed in, “I can’t stand them.”

I tried in vain to explain to the group that Droids weren’t necessarily representative of what “Android” was really like, but my attempt at reason was quickly drowned out by a flood of kids who came zooming into the room . . . some of them on Rollerblades.

But the whole exchange — coupled with some observations I’ve had over the past few months — made me realize that there is legitimate and growing confusion over exactly what Android is. And I don’t think Google’s partners are helping consumers figure it out, either. In fact, I’m starting to think they’re willingly obscuring it.

Case in point: Google and Samsung recently announced a fantastic new phone, the Galaxy Nexus, which I’ve written about before. It’s probably the best, most beautiful, and easiest-to-use Android phone available. It’s got a big, handsome screen (higher resolution than Apple’s iPhone 4S), a super-fast processor, and, most important, the grown-up, fourth version of Android called Ice Cream Sandwich.

The Galaxy Nexus was announced by Verizon in the United States, but you wouldn’t have found it on any store shelves on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. In fact, even though you can buy the phone all over the world, the only carrier in the United States that has announced it will carry it has yet to set a sales date. Instead, Verizon is pushing the Droid RAZR — a vastly inferior device.

That is likely because unlike the Galaxy Nexus, the RAZR is a device that Verizon (and Motorola) can tweak and control to their liking. In essence, the phonemakers get to establish a narrative about what a Droid is and how it looks.

And that’s really bad for Google.

You see, Google is taking big strides in making Android a bit more like the competition. Fun, charming, easy to use. But you wouldn’t know this, because there isn’t a phone you can buy in this country that shows off the new side of Android.

Instead, you get monster robot ads and a half-dozen modified versions of the operating system made to “differentiate” one phonemaker’s device from the other. Many of these devices have been so wildly differentiated that you can’t even run the same software on one phone to another.

All of this spells one thing in the marketplace: confusion. There are now scores of people — possibly the majority of Americans who are aware of the brand — who believe Android is a confusing, violent, techno-nightmare. All thanks to those ads.

The friends and family I was sitting with over the holiday aren’t a fluke — I think they’re probably the norm.

And that’s too bad, because Google’s inability (or unwillingness) to control its own message has made marketing the devices — both to consumers and developers — a rotten experience.

Ironically, the things that set Android apart from Apple’s iOS — its openness, the fact that the source code is freely available — are threatening to jeopardize many of the features of the operating system that make it attractive to users.

Now don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of Android phones out there. Android has become the leading smartphone platform because the devices are everywhere, and they’re often cheap. But people don’t really understand what they’re buying a lot of the time.

It would be nice to see Google take the reins back a little bit, even though that may be a challenge given the climate in the market. Take away partners’ ability to customize the operating system, and Google could lose some of the traction it’s gained.

On the other hand, if the dumbing-down and uglying-up of Android continues, all of the energy and inventiveness Google is pumping into the operating system could fall on deaf ears — while Apple and Microsoft continue to offer premium, consistent experiences.

Even Microsoft has figured this one out. The company that made its fortune on letting just about anyone put Windows on a wide variety of systems has taken a decidedly different direction with its mobile operating system, demanding that partners meet a minimum set of requirements for the software and don’t customize the offerings.

In this business, you have to adapt. If Google doesn’t start putting experience front and center, all that ground it has covered over the past few years could vanish in a flash of robot ninja laser fire.

Joshua Topolsky is founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

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