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Why Android will die

By Antonio Rodriguez, contributor

I used to think that, as with Linux and web services in the early part of last decade, Android was going to be the mortar for the Internet of post-PC devices— an essential ingredient to put stuff together. And unlike Linux which puttered away quietly in the background doing the heavy lifting for services like Amazon and Google, Android was largely user-facing and would therefore benefit from massive platform scale (and the resulting de-facto standard it would create) in a way no piece of software since Microsoft Windows had. To to see the early onslaught of CES announcements, one would think so.

What all of the talk of Android momentum and inevitability obscures, however, is that the dream of a common Android is dying. Three events in 2011 burned it and we’re now holding onto a charred corpse that is quite different:

The three events:

  1. 1. Google buying Motorola and alienating all of the tier one handset makers (none of which to this day have the spine to state it publicly but all of which have now come up with their “plan B”),
  2. 2. Microsoft extracting licensing fees from these same handset makers in the form of IP indemnification and
  3. 3. Amazon shipping a wildly successful, yet unidentifiable, version of an old Android build over the holiday… and making it a wild success.

Of the the three, #1 was completely avoidable but the other two may just have been the name of the game when there is so much at stake in the fight of who paints the interface for the next generation of computing.

The result of this elephant dance? Well it depends on who you are:

Web heads: All of the HTML5 folks should be ecstatic as it means that we’re going to see a resurgence in startups that target the emerging Android splinters with interfaces which leave the heavy lifting on the deployment side to the the web (see the bit about how the Kindle Fire blocked the Google Market and vice versa for why) and on the runtime side to the mobile browser. It won’t be as nice — and in the short-term and it will lack access to key device sensors (though it may accelerate our getting those as API extensions of the DOM) — but it is just not feasible to support iOS, Googlorola Android, HTC Sensedroid, Amazon Fire Droid, etc. if you are a startup. Big win for this emerging standard.

Users: Remember the olden days when the carriers were in charge and you got whatever they were serving for dinner? Well we aren’t ever going back to that but I can’t help remember a conversation I had with the head of product for a U.S. carrier last year at Mobile World Congress where he told me that their ideal world was “5-10 platforms with 10-20% each.” Why? Because in that mess someone has to help the user figure it all out and they are back to being in a pole position. I’m not sure they’ll pull it off, but device OS fragmentation definitely gives them another at-bat and if there is one thing these guys have proven it is that preloads work magic to overcome totally busted user experiences.

Let’s not forget, of course, that as users you’ll have to deal with the aforementioned jankiness of HTML5 applications for a few revs. Trust me though, short-term pain, long-term benefit.*

Entrepreneurs: Last year my advice was to build iOS and mobile web app and wait until you’ve got a million downloads before targeting Android. I see almost no one pursuing that approach these days, so I’ll revise it a little: Build an iOS app and a mobile web app and then go hunting for dollars/help to develop for the splinters of Android, opting to build yourself only the most generic bits of app code that you will for sure be able to reuse. If you want to get on a market where no one will pay you either in dollars or in in-kind promotion, go super lean and build all of your interface in Mobile Webkit (through something like Phonegap) until you’ve got a feel for whether the particular splinter presents a juicy vein of user adoption.

It not a particularly well-kept secret that when WebOS was in its death spiral, HP would happily pay developers to port any application which had shown traction to their platform. To my knowledge the Android tier one handset guys have not done this yet, but given a little time it may become a reality. There will still be all sorts of headaches involved, and you might be better off taking the love from Microsoft, but in a world of several warring Androids, you are the scarce commodity. Though the more popular splinters such as Amazon’s will likely never have to pay for developers, especially given the fact that with only one Christmas under their belt, they are already outperforming the standard Google Market in terms of downloads for some app categories, the rest will, probably in inverse proportion to how valuable they will be to getting you users. And in the meanwhile consider them non-dilutive equity financing sources.

It’s going to be a really interesting year for mobile. Having tackled Android, I’ll do my thoughts on iOS next (and it’s not coming out all roses there either).

Antonio Rodriguez is a general partner with Matrix Partners. This post originally appeared on his blog.