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Why Android is Broken

By most accounts, Google’s Android OS continues to demonstrate awesome momentum. One research firm predicts that Android device sales will surpass PC sales next year, and Google’s Andy Rubin recently boasted that 700,000 Android devices are activated daily—and that doesn’t include Wi-Fi-only devices like tablets. More good news: 11 billion items have been downloaded from the Android Market. So why is Google’s OS more vulnerable than ever?

Here’s why Android is in more trouble than you might think.

Amazon Hijacking Tablet Sales

As we learned last week, Android tablets now account for 39 percent of the market, versus 57.6 percent for the iPad. On paper, Android is up 10 percent from a year ago, but the vast majority of that growth has come on the back of the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. In fact, Strategy Analytics estimates that these two devices made up 40 percent of Android tablet sales in the fourth quarter.

The problem for Google is that these slates don’t look anything like the traditional Android because Amazon and Barnes & Noble have devised their own interfaces. Yes, they run Android apps, but they don’t access the full Android Market, nor do they run Google’s own apps like Gmail or Google Maps. This sort of fragmentation will only make shoppers think twice about stepping up to a pure Android tablet.

Google is Fragmenting Its Own Platform

One of the supposed benefits of Ice Cream Sandwich is that it make the lives of developers easier when it comes to making apps that run equally well on phones and tablets. The recently issued design guide for Android apps will be a great tool. However, while ICS shares some UI elements across handsets and slates—like the revamped Recent Apps menu--Google doesn’t go far enough.

When you pick up an iPad, it works pretty much the same way as an iPhone. With an Android tablet, the App button is in a different place and you touch the bottom right screen to peek at notifications, as opposed to swiping down from the top of the screen as you do on phones. With the millions of Android smartphone owners out there, why would you want to force them to learn a new UI when jumping to a tablet? The lack of familiarity is an instant turn-off.

UI Skins Are Out of Control

Last week, we reviewed the LG Spectrum from Verizon Wireless. The phone has a compelling HD display and blazing fast 4G LTE speeds, but Android is so heavily skinned that we didn’t really want to use the phone after the testing was over. The lack of a Search button didn’t help either. Another phone for AT&T, the Pantech Burst, delivers some great UI elements, including a lockscreen chock-full of shortcuts, but it offers quite a different experience.

I’m all for differentiation, but the look and feel of Android phones varies too greatly from one device to the next. There’s not enough consistency. The Samsung Galaxy S II sold like gangbusters because it combined great hardware with a lighter touch to skinning Android. I’d like to see every Android phone ship with a button that lets you switch to a clean slate mode for the OS, instead of forcing people to root their devices. 

Google+ is Getting Rammed Down Users' Throats

I was recently surprised to learn that Google Google Talk was no longer available as a standalone application. Where did it go? It’s integrated into Google+, Google’s social networking app. Signing up for Google+ is also the only way to automatically upload your photos and videos to the cloud for safekeeping. The whole point of Android was to be open, and I don’t like being told that in order to get certain features, I now need to take on another social network.

Bottom Line

The Android ecosystem is obviously strong, and it’s still evolving. But Google needs to take more control over the user experience or its platform will just break apart. (And I don’t mean forcing everyone to use Google+.) There’s a reason why the iPhone 4S was the top-selling smartphone in the fourth quarter. Consumers know what they’re getting. The same thing goes for Windows Phones like the upcoming Lumia 900. There are some people who dislike this Metro-style interface, but at least there’s a consistency, and the same UI is coming to Windows 8—no skins allowed. With Android, it’s just a crapshoot.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Google Talk was not available for download from Android Market.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.