By Matt Vella, senior editor
FORTUNE — It looks like Google’s mobile operating system, Android, is on a roll. A string of recent announcements—from sexy new phones to leadership changes—suggests that Google is gaining momentum in the multi-firm fight for the future of the mobile web.
It doesn’t hurt that Apple
has been rather quiet the last few months. March came and went without a major announcement. Appleologists will tell you that the calendar typically looks something like this: September is for music products and services, October is reserved for the Mac, and March is for everything else, more or less. This year, the Apple faithful got nothing. “We weren’t expecting a ton of fireworks,” analyst Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray recently told Fortune. “But the fact that it wasn’t there was incrementally disappointing.” Meanwhile, John Grubber recently blogged that iOS 7, the next iteration of Apple’s bedrock mobile operating system, has been delayed. (This graphic may sum up why.)
In contrast, there have been a number of positives in Google’s
column. These include:
The Android store is improving. Google appears to be trying to improve its mobile store, Play. First, as TechCrunch reported Monday, the company has gotten more aggressive about removing non-compliant or spam-like applications from the marketplace. February set records for the number of apps removed; about 60,000 programs were junked, the largest round of deletions to date. (Not all were removed by Google, but it seems most were.) Secondly, Google today started rolling out a redesigned version of Play. The company says it is streamlining some confusing parts of the store and trying to make finding content easier. It’s an evolutionary change, but anything that gets Apple, Google or Microsoft
closer to solving the problem of discoverability in mobile apps is a good thing.
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Way better devices. Let’s face it, there have been some pretty bad Android-powered phones. That may be only natural since Google allows other companies to use its OS on varying flavors of hardware. (Just ask Microsoft.) Now two new Android phones are getting the technorati worked up. The first is Samsung’s Galaxy S4, the successor to the wildly popular S3. It was unveiled in a mid-March presentation that some thought was tacky. But the phone itself is generating positive buzz ahead of its release. The second is HTC’s One phone, also due out soon. Reviewers have been raving about this phone, calling it the best Android device yet and so on.
New leadership. The Android business appears to be in good hands. In March, Google CEO Larry Page announced that Andy Rubin, the Android division’s founder and longtime leader, would be stepping aside. Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president in charge of Chrome and apps, took his place. As my colleague Miguel Helft recently reported, Pichai is a “quiet, analytic executive” who helped make Chrome the most-used Internet browser in just four years. In the course of reporting his in-depth profile of Page, Miguel observed that Page and Pichai “seemed to have a warm, easygoing rapport.” Pichai, with Page’s support and an impressive track record, is in a good position to push Android further.
And then there’s Facebook (FB) Home. How the social network’s Android-based launcher software, due out in April, will actually play out is anybody’s guess. It could help sell more Android handsets. Or it could amount to Facebook using Google’s own platform against it. Analyst reactions to the announcement were rather mixed.
Where’s this argument start to break down? The numbers are still all over the map. A report from Canalys on Monday showed that while Google captured 51% of all app downloads in the first quarter, Apple took a whopping 74% of the revenue—a mixed bag to say the least. And last week, data drawn from comScore seemed to suggest that Android sales peaked—in terms of growth in number of users—in December 2011. Not to mention, of course, that Apple could reset the scoreboard at any moment with a new iPhone.