Google Aims for Purity with Android Silver

Is the Android Silver initiative mostly a rebranding effort for existing Nexus smartphones, or is it something much more?

If you haven't yet heard of Android Silver -- assuming it's real -- that's because it's not been officially announced by Google.

But recent reports from unnamed sources indicate Google is working to replace its Nexus line of pure Android phones with Android Silver devices sometime in 2015.

Nexus has for years been Google's hedge against fragmentation of pure Android by various manufacturers -- including Android bestseller Samsung. These smartphone makers tend to add their own custom apps, interfaces, browsers and services to basic Android.

Nexus smartphones have never been top sellers, but have served as a kind of reference for what pure Android can provide; they tend to be bought by Android enthusiasts and are unlocked from any carrier.

The Information, citing four unnamed sources, this week described Android Silver (subscription required) as taking aim at the high-end iPhone, as well as Samsung and others, by requiring Android Silver phone makers to limit the number of non-Google apps that can be pre-installed, and by giving users the option to uninstall any non-Google apps.

Android Police in early April described Google's Android Silver plan as requiring makers to run the latest version of Android with no, or very limited, customizations. The website relied on slides, allegedly from Google, that it obtained last year.

The Android Silver plan also reportedly calls for Google to pick five Silver phones at one time, and to require carriers to sell them in a special booth within their stores. There could even be a loaner phone for users losing theirs and a Google hangout assistant to provide live video tech support.

All told, Google could be spending up to $1 billion for marketing and support services for Android Silver.

Given the reports already out there about Android Silver, we interviewed several analysts to get their impressions. There are still plenty of unknowns about the concept and those unknowns lead to many questions.

Google isn't commenting on Android Silver.

Here are just eight questions raised by the secrecy.

1. Is Android Silver something fundamentally different for Google, or is it more of a rebranding of Nexus?

It's both, if that makes sense, but the rebranding angle holds water, especially if you believe that so much of the success of a new smartphone depends on the marketing and branding behind it.

Jack Narcotta, an analyst at TBRI, weighs in: "Android Silver is more of a revamp of the Nexus program than it is about Google trying to exert more control over the Android ecosystem it's had a large hand in creating. Nexus devices are great and they represent what Android can be when mobile devices are saddled with bloatware."

Narcotta noted that Google's use of the name "Nexus" doesn't indicate the device is "Android" which Android Silver could help improve on -- assuming that's the final name. The way products from Nexus are branded is with the name "Google" on the device's startup screen or the name of the manufacturer such as Asus, in the example of the Nexus 7 tablet.

"Android is too much in the background today and for Google, that's a problem, especially when it's clearly trying to establish Android as its own brand," Narcotta added.

For customers going into a store, a special "Android Silver" booth might be just the branding Google has in mind.

Narcotta expressed some concern about the Android "Silver" moniker instead of another premium name, such as "Platinum" or "Titanium"? "The name 'Silver' immediately makes me think Android lost a race and got awarded second place," Narcotta said.

2. Android Silver might indeed be about rebranding Nexus, but isn't it really more than that?

Yes, several analysts think Google is going to the next level with Android Silver by offering more services to customers than carriers now provide for most Android phones, and even more than what Google provides for Nexus devices.

Google hangouts that offer customer assistance, another possibility, is similar to something Amazon is doing with its new tablets. This customer service idea gets Google out in front of any carrier's customer support.

3. Isn't this about Google trying again to take on Samsung and other Android device makers, and even carriers, who add so many apps and features to phones and without rolling out the latest version of Android on time?

Most analysts think so, although Google has been trying to protect pure Android for years by goading carriers and manufacturers to make upgrades to the latest versions of Android in a timely fashion.

More recently, Google has tried to upgrade its many services instead of its operating system in hopes that a delay in a new OS won't matter as much to end users. That approach still hasn't been totally successful, many analysts believe.

"With many different versions of Android out there, there is no consistency," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "Users can now go into a store and buy new phones with three or four different versions of Android. And how do you keep a market full of diverse Android OS phones up to date?

The single biggest reason enterprises resist going to Android is due to so many different versions of the OS on BYOD devices. Unified Android would definitely help in enterprise adoption."

4. Wait a minute. Is Android Silver really about unified Android?

Not by a long shot. If Silver is rolled out, it would only be a few phones at a time, reportedly, and there would still be a huge global market for the many low-cost Android phones being sold, many in undeveloped countries where low prices matter more. A particular Android version and add-on apps don't matter to many end users, although that might be an issue for an IT administrator faced with supporting so many different devices.

Strategy Analytics last month released a survey of 250-plus Galaxy S4 and S4 users which found they spent very little time using Samsung custom apps when compared to the time spent on just three Google apps.

The survey indicates what many customers already realize: It's easy to ignore third-party bloatware. You might not be able to remove the custom apps in some cases, which can leave a phone's interface cluttered and ugly, but it isn't clear that matters much to many smartphone users.

Having an updated OS might matter more than a bunch of bloatware, especially to get to Android versions that delete bugs and add vital security features.

Google clearly seems sensitive to that need, although, again, Android Silver wouldn't be attractive to much of the world that wants cheaper phones.

5. So, what vendors will want to make Android Silver phones?

Lenovo, which bought Motorola Mobility for nearly $3 billion from Google, would seem to be a candidate for U.S.-based smartphones with the Android Silver concept. That would give the former Google subsidiary an inroad in the high-end U.S. market, where more customers are willing to upgrade on a regular basis than in developing countries.

Many other smaller manufactures might also want to be part of Android Silver, if only to benefit from Google marketing and support. And having one phone in an entire manufacturer's line based on Android Silver might not be so difficult for some vendors.

"It is likely that most Android vendors will be forced to take Android Silver due to competitive pressure," said ABI analyst Nick Spencer. "Samsung is the only vendor with the power to resist, but I suspect they won't do so in the short term as they are pragmatic and opportunistic at heart."

6. Really, how serious an issue is Android fragmentation for Google?

Here's one answer: Spencer and ABI have seen a growing financial impact from Android fragmentation on Google, not just on Android customers and manufacturers.

ABI reported in January that 32% of the 221.5 million Android phones shipped in the fourth quarter of 2013 used forked versions from Android Open Source Project (AOSP) manufacturers -- an increase from 20% a year earlier.

The AOSP phones made by vendors such as Xiaomi, Coolpad, Giomee and others don't offer Google services to customers, which cuts into Google's ability to monetize the Android ecosystem, according to Spencer.

Ultimately, Google has a financial incentive in all of this and Android Silver is "certainly an attempt to control the OS and reduce fragmentation," Spencer said.

7. Aren't high-end phones costing more than $200 with a carriers subsidy on the wane?

It's true that analysts feel the smartphone market is saturated, especially at the high-end, but Google must feel there's still potential to reach early adopters with quality devices that can compete against the iPhone.

That's why a pure Android phone in the Android Silver category matters. Because Google works from an advertising model, it needs to offer up more ads from inside its services to consumers who can and want to buy things.

"First and foremost, Google wants to track everything consumers do, including what they like, dislike, where they are, where they are going and who they are with. This maximizes the advertising opportunity," said analyst Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

"To get this rich, contextual information, Google needs consumers to use their branded services like Search, Maps, Play, Contacts, Calendar, Chrome, Gmail and more," Moorhead added. "Android Silver is an attempt to get more high-end phones to lead with Google services and provide an alternative to Samsung. Google is concerned that Samsung has such a lead at the high end Android market that Google needs a more level playing field or it will lose control."

Still, Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC, thinks Android Silver will not be an easy approach for device makers who compete against each other.

"For the last 18 months, we've been hearing how the high-end is saturated," he said.

"You already have the LG G series, Samsung's Galaxy S series, the Moto X and the HTC One, so now Google's asking manufacturers to put together yet another high-end handset labeled Android Silver? And when it is done, is that Google's handset or is it the OEM's? And how does an OEM position its Silver against the other guy's Silver?"

Even if Lenovo brought Android Silver into the U.S., how would it face off against the Moto X? Llamas asked. "The Moto X is definitely no slouch," he said.

8. Obviously, analysts disagree on how much control Google is trying to wrest from device makers or carriers with Android Silver. What gives?

Part of the problem is that Android Silver isn't yet an official, confirmed program, so the details aren't clear, meaning analysts will keep offering differing sentiments.

Sometimes big companies release concepts through anonymous sources to act as a trial balloon in public to induce feedback from various fronts and constituencies.

It seems like Google will move ahead with Android Silver, although it's likely another round of Nexus devices will surface before that happens.

While most analysts see Android Silver as a reaction to growing Android fragmentation and especially to Samsung, Narcotta said he sees a far more ambitious goal.

"I definitely think Android Silver about Google becoming very focused on making sure that Android's appeal and profile is raised among all consumers, especially with wearables, Chromebooks and other Android-powered devices beginning to gain traction," Narcotta explained.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Google Aims for Purity with Android Silver" was originally published by Computerworld.

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