The Android devices ecosystem is complex, dynamic and rapidly evolving. There have been eleven flavors of android from alpha to KitKat. The refresh cycle was bi-annual, and has now been reduced to annual. Despite a decrease in the frequency, these refresh cycles necessitate continuous adaptation, adoption and upgrade by OEMs for current and new users. Android’s primary device segment has been smartphones and tablets. However, there are multiple OEMs and ODMs in the market building devices across a wide-range of semiconductor chipset platforms, screen sizes, form-factors, operators and components from third party vendors. This has led to Android fragmentation at a scale where providing uniform quality of user experience has become a major challenge. While fragmentation allows customization opportunities for OEMs, it is in google’s best interest to exercise greater control on this ecosystem
Nexus, Android One and Android Silver
Google has a line-up of flagship devices under the Nexus brand with ‘stock’ or ‘pure’ Android ported. There have been five versions of Nexus smartphones built with multiple OEMs like HTC, LG, and Samsung. There have been three versions of Nexus tablets built with multiple OEMs like Asus and Samsung. Rumors are that the next Nexus device (codenamed Shamu) will be built by Motorola to be released in 2014. There were also rumors that the Nexus line will be succeeded by a new line of flagship Android stock devices called Android Silver, however google has not confirmed the existence of this line of products. To target the mid-to-low end of the market, Google has taken up the Android One initiative with Indian OEMs like Micromax, Karbonn and Spice mobile and introduced multiple devices into the market
With Android One google seems to be taking baby steps at defragmenting the ecosystem by ensuring uniform benchmark quality of service, user experience and guaranteed upgradation to the next two android flavours. The OEMs gain in this model, due to ease and speed of building devices based on the reference hardware design from low cost chipset vendors like Mediatek and the might of google’s backing and support for Android porting. Essentially, the OEM needs to focus on building their channel partners, marketing and sales force for better reach to the user markets, while R&D budgets can be minimized. This will subsequently increase pressure on major semiconductor companies to lower their chipset costs to provide a competitive position to OEMs using them.
The restriction of customization of Android OS by OEMs in the Android One program point to Google’s strategy of gaining control of the ecosystem. On the other hand, the impending sale of Motorola mobility to Lenovo, points to a new form of vertical integration without having hardware capabilities in its backyard.
Boon or Bane on OEMs?
OEMs trying to differentiate their devices in the market cannot do so at the silicon or hardware levels, as they have become commoditized. The current differentiation offered by OEMs is in software features, applications, skins, services, enterprise security built on top of the Android frameworks. HoweverGoogle has been incorporating these key elements contributed by the OEMs into subsequent Android OS flavors. As the Android ecosystem evolves, the operating system and applications will get commoditized, with initiatives like Android One accelerating this phenomenon. In such a flux situation how will the OEMs stay ahead of the race if all the devices offer the same feature set?
Some of the possible areas in which OEMs can differentiate themselves are as below:
Build quality: Increase focus on aesthetics, ergonomics and industrial design and create form factors that are attractive yet durable
Last long: Longer and better battery life through application optimizations and high power batteries
Accessories: Create an accessory ecosystem tying it with the Internet of things ecosystem with good interoperability across devices
Application packaging: OEMs can work with the application developer ecosystem to create apps providing services that also enhances the OEM ‘brand’. These applications can then be pre-loaded and provided for free to customers
Sensors: While the reference designs from Mediatek and Qualcomm will have multiple integrated sensors like accelerometer, gyrometer, temperature, haptic sensors etc, duly supported by enabling software from Google and available to all the OEMs, innovation can be done in the form of applications that utilize these sensors in a disruptive fashion.
Operator Tie-up: OEM’s can tie up with operators to provide value-added services and Over-the-top content. Airtel and reliance communications are providing free data bandwidth for application download and OS upgrades directly anchored by Google.
Implication of this on ERnD service providers
As semiconductor vendors face cost pressures and OEMs reduce their R&D spends, the outsourcing budgets are likely to reduce significantly. In this context, Embedded R&D services companies catering to the smart devices market are likely to face difficult times ahead.
Sasken is a specialist in Product Engineering and Digital Transformation providing concept-to-market, chip-to-cognition R&D services to global leaders in Semiconductor, Automotive, Industrials, Smart Devices & Wearables, Enterprise Grade Devices, Satcom and Transportation industries.
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