Android becomes a featurephone OS?

I got back from MWC in Barcelona on Thursday night. I’ll publish something properly considered next week for my client Enders Analysis, but I have a few scattered thoughts to set down here - too long for Twitter if not quite a proper blog post. 

A major story was the growth of Android - while some people were scrambling to hear Steve Ballmer give a speech that contained nothing at all surprising, I was in Halls 4 and 5 talking to Chinese ODMs who sell $100 Android handsets with capacitive touch screens and built-in torches. Ericsson and Qualcomm chipsets at the high end, Mediatek in the mid-range and Infineon for the $10 handsets. They’re cheap and plasticky and the screens aren’t great, but they work just fine. Then there’s the $40 featurephone with 4 live SIM slots…

A lot of people came back from MWC talking about cheap Android - about how the ODMs and Samsung, LG, Huawei, ZTE et al will make up a tidal wave that shifts the balance of power in mobile content away from Apple. Android’s stand was heaving with developers: last year they had to give away phones by the hundred but this year free badges and (Apple flavoured) sweets were enough. 

I think this is right but incomplete. Certainly, smartphones will probably reach 75% of European device penetration by 2015. 

However, another big issue I saw in MWC was fragmentation, and the resilience of the attitudes behind the featurephone. Those $100 Android devices are made by Chinese ODMs who’ll do whatever the end customer wants - Mr Operator, you want a custom phone book and white label game store? No problem. You want Wifi locked to your own hotspot service? A custom UI? Video auto-routed through your traffic management system? No problem! 

Over on the DoCoMo stand was the last bastion of the featurephone - although Softbank is doing very well indeed selling the iPhone and DoCoMo itself was selling Android devices customised to support Felica NFC payment and ‘OneSeg’/ISDB-T mobile TV. But to me the really interesting thing was the fact that a lot of those featurephones actually RUN Symbian under the hood. In two years’s time, how many will run Android under the hood?

In other words, just because that $100 device is running a new OS, that doesn’t mean the underlying industry motivations are new. So long as people want subsidised phones, the people paying the subsidy get a say in what the phones do, and things will remain messy.