Why Android May Fail.

...or Why I Feel Free, For Now.

Paul Miller's recent post on ecosystems got me thinking. Things have changed incredibly quickly in the mobile market in the last two years. Android has gone from a curio to a dominant position. I think things could change almost that quickly again. Android is vulnerable to WP7, or some other competitive OS. (Probably not iOS - one phone a year from a single manufacturer will never be able to conquer the whole market, however good it is). Why could Android lose out so dramatically? Because I do not believe the ecosystem is yet secured. There is not yet the lock-in that Windows had in the nineties, or that iOS has now.

That's partly to do with Google's web-oriented services and "open" philosophy. If I wanted to change to a new mobile OS, I feel I could very easily, and I suspect for many Android users it's the same. So what exactly are some of the barriers to switching?

Apps

I have probably spent about £5 on apps. That obviously does not represent a heavy chain to the platform. I don't think I'm particularly abnormal in this regard. There may be quite a few people here who have invested more than me in the Market, but I'd wager the average Android user has spent less than me, and probably a majority have spent absolutely nothing. Much of the higher spending will be on games, which often have a limited shelf-life anyway.

Productivity & Services

Many people use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Docs. People like me. But I only stick with them because they offer a pretty good service. I feel I could switch to competing services at any time without too much trouble. Partly because of google's data portability arrangements, partly because the historical data can if necessary be accessed over the web from any OS (and via apps on some), and partly because I'm not the sort of person who often has to search email from years ago anyway.

Many of the other popular services are also available cross-platform. Netflix, Kindle, Dropbox, Evernote. Indeed those companies' platform strategies require them to be everywhere.

Network effects

I suggest that there aren't really any. That is, there is no major piece of functionality that depends on me using the same mobile OS as my friends and colleagues. In the 90s, most people felt compelled to use Windows because its what everyone else used. Not doing so brought no end of hassle. The situation is not the same with Android, mainly because of open standards. OK I can't android beam anything to my iPhone-owning friends, but then I can't do that to most of my android-owning friends yet either. And at the end of the day, it's not a show-stopper.

Blackberry has BBM. Apple has FaceTime and iMessage. I'm not a big user of such services anyway, so perhaps this is just me, but is there a big, widely-used Android analogue at the moment that wouldn't work cross-platform?

Music

I uploaded my mp3s to Google Music. It's all still on my hard drive.

So why am I here?

All that's keeping me with Android is that nothing else represents a better enough value proposition to go through the relatively small hassle of changing. I feel like I have options, and at the moment I have chosen Android along with a variety of (but not exclusively) Google's web services. I hope that vulnerability to competition isn't worrying to Android "supporters". It is a good thing. If I am right, it does mean that the android could very quickly lose its crown. But that means we are free, and that Google has to at the very least keep pace with the competition to keep us happy.

Impending Imprisonment?

Maybe there's not a strong platform lock-in right now, but how long will this last? Will it become much more common to shell out large amounts for apps that then tie you to Android? If Google manages to brute-force Google+ to widespread use, what then? How about ever-tighter cloud integration - will files, music, movies, etc become so tightly linked to web services that data portability becomes impossible, or too much of a headache for the ordinary mortal to contemplate?

And is the "open" philosophy just a useful ploy for now, while Google is building and consolidating its platform? Once the web services and mobile industries become more mature, and if Google becomes dominant, will there be a temptation to ossify and restrict free movement of users out of the platform?

What do you think?