Android's place on the vertical-integration continuum

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This post was migrated from a former home. Its contents are all but forgotten, but are kept for posterity's sake. 

Last week at D:Mobile, Google’s Andy Rubin demoed a prototype Motorola Tablet running Honeycomb, a future version of Android developed with tablet-sized screens in mind. 

Something struck me about what Rubin said towards the end (skip to 7:05 to hear the discussion in question). When Kara Swisher asked whether the device he had was the “perfect expression” of an Android tablet, or if there would be “175 different versions,” he said:

I’ve worked at companies where they generically try to do software — and this is the way Microsoft used to work with Windows — they very generically build the next version of Windows and then expect it to work on all PCs.

In reality, what we do is we pick one of our partners, a semi-conductor partner, an operator, and an OEM, combine them all together and this is the device that all the engineers have on their desk when they come in in the morning. So they all know the specific thing they have to focus on for that day. It makes a much tighter integration of hardware and software. 

If I had to kind of put that on a continuum, I would say that Apple has done a perfect job of being an integrator of hardware and software, they’re vertically integrated. Then Windows throws shrunk-wrapped software out there and lets Acer and Asus and everybody else build PCs out of it.

So we’re sitting somewhere on that continuum closer to an Apple than a Microsoft.

The issue with Rubin’s statement is, while Android developers may be developing on a highly integrated solution, it’s not reflective of the end result, it’s just an ideal. The very nature of the platform, as Rubin stated, is that they want Android to be on as many different devices as possible. They’re not in the business of making one piece of hardware. 

The continuum that Rubin cites is a consumer-facing continuum. To the end-user, it’s the final result that’s either completely vertically integrated, or generic and splintered.

In all likelihood, the Motorola tablet that Rubin demoed will be just one of many different offerings (if it even comes to market). Further, once Google has put its stamp on the tablet version of Android and passed it out to operators, the very same tablet will likely appear in different operators’ retail stores with unrecognizably distinct versions of the OS. In the same way that the Nexus One was the “ideal” for the phone, this “ideal” tablet may only be available from Google, at an unsubsidized price that very few consumers will be interested in paying.

Other merits of Google’s open-platform approach aside, placing it on the scale closer to Apple’s fully integrated products is not reflective of the outcome that consumers will see.