Dustin Curtis recently wrote a great post explaining why a lot of the Android phones out on the market today are completely atrocious from a UI perspective. Curtis relays a conversation he had with Rich Miner, one of the founders of Android, and how Google’s intention with Android was to take care of the nitty gritty technical issues as to enable manufacturers to spend more time on UI enhancements – a strategy which seems sound in theory, but one which ultimately failed to deliver a UI experience comparable with Apple’s iOS.
What Miner and Google gambled on, and it seems bizarre in retrospect, was that the carriers and the manufacturers would be good at customizing and improving the user experience of the base operating system. At the time, that gamble would have made some sense; if you went to the carriers and manufacturers in 2007 and asked what they wanted, they probably would have described exactly what Android had become by 2009. Unfortunately, while Android itself is a huge achievement and a popular piece of software, the customized interfaces added by manufacturers are, for the most part, horrible. They are poorly designed, they slow down development, they prevent quick software updates, and they lead to countless annoying divergences in the platform that are difficult for app developers to test against. These things are Android’s biggest weaknesses.
And the thing is, Google ostensibly doesn’t care about the user experience. Well over 90+% of their revenue comes from advertisements, and they’re as much an advertising company as they are a search company. Consequently, Google top priority is to hasten the proliferation of Android handsets into the marketplace, thereby increasing the number of mobile searches which drives even more ad revenue. In other words, Google isn’t concerned with creating the best user experience, they’re concerned with cold hard numbers – such as how many Android handsets are being activated every day.
The end result speaks for itself. As a result of Google’s zeal to spread Android far and wide, the market has been flooded with handsets that often leave much to be desired. Whether it be clunky hardware that can’t run the Android OS smoothly or a UI interface that causes perpetual head scratching and confusion, Android handsets, more often than not, are clearly inferior to what Apple delivers with the iPhone.
Now Google has acknowledged its design shortcomings, and the company, with the release of Ice Cream Sandwich, does seem more interested in shoring up its UI deficiencies, but Google’s mission at the end of the day is driven by market saturation. And when design comes second, or even third, an inferior product is inevitable.
It’s hardly controversial to state that companies are best at the stuff they care about. Even take a look at Apple’s efforts with iAds, for example. Advertising isn’t a core competency of the company so it’s hardly shocking that Apple hasn’t become a huge player in the mobile ad business. When Google starts caring more about the user experience than it does with mobile ad revenue, maybe then Android will be able to deliver an experience iOS users will be jealous of.