On Google Phones Brand Confusion Reigns: Is That Android a Cupcake or Froyo?

Google's Android Mobile OS Is on a Roll, but Should Take a Branding Page From Intel or Chrysler

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Recently, a friend asked me to recommend a replacement for his BlackBerry phone. The key contenders for me were:

  1. One of 170-plus devices powered by Android's different versions
  2. One of 10 Windows Phone 7 devices (four more are planned not counting Nokia)
  3. Apple's iPhone

I took on Android first knowing there was more to learn. I was aware there were going to be more choices but as I looked deeper, the disparate (brand) names overwhelmed me. A lot has been written about the fragmentation of Android in terms of look and feel across different wireless carriers. But now I'm seeing it as a branding issue as well. Has it hurt Android?

First answer: No, given the large market share it has captured in such a short span of time. Second answer: Maybe. As per a GfK survey in November 2010, Apple commands twice (59%) the brand loyalty of Android (28%) in a market where only 25% users plan to stay loyal to their OS. Furthermore, the company that knows OS distribution best, Microsoft, is off to a slow start but making inroads with Windows Phone 7, and is not too far behind Android at 21% brand loyalty. It is far easier to stay loyal to a brand, a product, a cause, or a promised future when the message is simple with less to process.

With multiple devices, carriers and versions of the operating system, Android fragmentation seems to be here to stay. For example, only 9.2% of Android users have the latest version of the OS, Gingerbread (after 6 months of its availability), 64.6% run Froyo, and even today around 21.2% run an earlier version, Eclair. In the two and a half years since we were all introduced to Android, the following six major versions have been developed. Their names are:

  • Cupcake
  • Donut
  • Eclair
  • Foyo
  • Gingerbread (v2.3.3 and v2.3.4)
  • Coming soon: Ice Cream Sandwich

In order to differentiate, handset makers like Motorola, HTC and Samsung have added their own Android UI replacements under the brands MotoBlur, Sense and TouchWiz. Then there's Honeycomb (v3.0 and v3.1) for tablets. At Google I/O this year, they announced Ice Cream Sandwich which will combine Gingerbread and Honeycomb as one.

Now lets look at Android tablets: There is the Xoom (Motorola), Tab (Samsung), Iconia (Acer), Dell Streak, GTablet (Viewsonic), Folio (Toshiba) and many more.

Google's web browser is called Chrome and its OS is Chrome OS available on the ChromeBook. Surprisingly enough (and if the browser someday will be the OS), the default browser on the Android has no name. Apple has mobile Safari.

Microsoft's history with the mobile OS has had different names starting with PocketPC, Windows Mobile (whose versions were all numbered) and now Windows Phone 7 and their latest update is called "Mango." None of the five prior versions of WP7 had a name, though. On the desktop, Microsoft started with Windows 1.0, 2.0 etc, and now more recently with Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 and the upcoming code-named Windows 8. All evidence points to unification of the three screens (phone, desktop, tablet) for Microsoft with Windows 8, which has been significantly inspired by Windows Phone 7 user interface.

Apple on the desktop has Mac OS X which started with Kodiak (Mac OS X Public Beta), then Cheetah (v10.0), Puma (v10.1) and Jaguar (v10.2) as internal code names. Only when Jaguar created significant buzz, Apple started using these names as brands to promote the versions. These updates had significant improvements: Tiger (v10.4) had 150-plus features and Leopard (v10.5), consequently, 300-plus features. The latest recently announced is Lion (v10.7)

On the mobile front, Apple's minimalism comes through in its branding -- three mobile devices (iPod Touch, iPad and iPhone) and one OS, iOS, with different version numbers (five major versions have been announced since its introduction in 2007). The second generation of Apple TV today also carries a modified version of iOS. The iPhones and iPad generations are numbered as well.

In this era of people feeling compelled to inform us about what they are eating, the farm they watered and where they are, a brand suffers when there is more to know or remember about it -- especially about what is under the hood. I can only think of two branding initiatives of products under the hood that worked -- "Intel Inside" and "That Thing Got a Hemi?"

Furthermore, the product life cycles of the mobile OS is much shorter and far more rapid (especially with Android) than those on the desktop. It is going to be incredibly noisy for the average user to establish a (brand) identity with each version having a new name.

You would think Google would have launched their new laptops as "Androidbook" (instead of ChromeBook). Unfortunately then that defeats the cause of the browser as the OS and all rich applications running on it. Google maybe stuck with Android and Chrome -- but it is not with all the names for different versions. It is also possible Google will consolidate these and hopefully not too late -- like Ice Cream Sandwich that promises to bring phones and tablets together.

Will Mac OS X one day become iOS -- I would bet on it as we (and our content) all become mobile.

Can you imagine looking to buy a car and if each manufacturer had a different name for each year's model? Do not forget, that an average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information a day. I will take credit for the 912 you just read, but does the average consumer have the time to sort it out? And should Google and its mobile partners be asking them to?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mrinal Desai was co-founder of CrossLoop (funded by El Dorado & Venrock). Prior to that he was the first business development manager at LinkedIn. He is featured on AdAge's 25 Media People to follow on Twitter -- you can follow him at @mrinaldesai.
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