Falling for the Cult of Android – a personal account

A lesson in marketing, viral communities and exhibition swag …and what it means to all of us.

Sometimes the benefits of attending a trade show like Mobile World Congress can be quite subtle and only after a few hours does it strike you that you’ve actually seen something quite profound. I’ve just had one of those days, only it wasn’t a new smartphone or tablet that I’d seen, it was the birth of a cult. It was being played out in front of my very eyes, I was part of it, and only later did I realise what was happening. This was the Cult of Android.

Nobody at Mobile World Congress 2011 could have missed Android’s attendance. Without a presence from Apple or Nokia, and with RIM and Microsoft tucked away in far flung corners, this was Android’s show. Dozens of exhibitor stands, from device manufacturers to mobile operators, featured two-foot high Android replicas and instead of handing out own-brand swag they were handing out Android-green candy, Android badges and Android stickers. That little fella was everywhere.

It wasn’t until my last day at the show that I actually visited the Android stand. Actually, calling it a stand isn’t really accurate. Imagine a lounge, mixed with a juice bar and a children’s playground and you’re getting closer. At a show like Mobile World Congress, any excuse to sit down on a comfy chair and pause for breath is welcome.  I found a spot and a couple of hours later I was still sat there. I had watched normally conservative industry executives slide down a transparent chute, I’d helped myself to refreshments from the bank of chiller-cabinets (Google-employee style), I’d watched people stampede as stand staff threw out Android stickers, badges and ‘collectable’ figures and I’d enjoyed every minute.

50% of the space had been given over to the ubiquitous demo-pod, but these were largely just application partners showcasing apps that anyone on the stand could have easily downloaded in 20 seconds if they were really interested. There was no ‘real’ content in the traditional exhibition stand-sense of the word. There were no (visible) meeting rooms, no mini-seminars and no demos showcasing deep technology or even anything that 99% of the stand visitors didn’t already know. But without doubt it was the busiest stand at the entire event. Why? Because people wanted to be part of a game-changing component of our industry, they wanted to experience Google, they wanted to pretend they were part of the West-coast cool and sit on beanbags and slurp smoothies. They just wanted to be part of something, and Android delivered.

The stand, viral marketing, swag and ‘product-placement’ were works of marketing genius. It was a lesson in how to build communities, but in a controlled and consistent way. Suits rubbed shoulders with geeks; tailored jackets sat next to ripped jeans and all of them rushed to their feet when one of the stand staff walked past with a box of goodies. Boxes of collectable Android models were emptied in seconds; I know because I was at the front of the queue. I have no idea why. I’m choosy about my swag. It’s just more to carry. But I left with anything I could get my hands on; I’d been caught up in the Cult of Android. This is where Apple was several years ago; at the epi-center of geek-chic before they became a household name. They offered a home to a sub-current of industry followers who wanted change, and appreciated a disruptive approach. I could see the same thing playing out in front of my eyes, but the Apple had been replaced by a little green man.

Interesting I was with an old friend who’d wanted to visit the stand for research. He’s not a pure-play telecoms professional and until recently had not even heard of Android. But he’s consulting for Nokia, understood their current woes, and wanted to understand how they could compete against an ecosystem like Android’s. I told him that given the recent announcement that Nokia would be building Windows Phone 7 devices I thought they’d need to quickly win hearts and minds amongst a die-hard Symbian developer community who’d previously regarded Redmond’s finest as the enemy. It was a partnership that needed to happen quickly and deliver results and compelling product this year. I also told him that they shouldn’t try too hard to be cool (it always seems so contrived when Nokia does it). But they did need to build a community around their core competencies and start embracing the wider Over-The-Top (OTT) world. My friend nodded and took some notes but his attention had been grabbed by another box of collectable Android figures being opened by the stand staff. He already had three, but there were sixteen different designs to collect, and he wanted to add to his collection. Remember this is someone that until a few weeks ago only had the briefest understanding of mobile operating systems. He wasn’t just sipping the Kool-Aid, he was having it delivered intravenously. For 60 minutes we’d both become fan-boys and loved every minute. We were part of the cult and had the stickers and badges to prove it.

The marketing strategy behind Android’s Mobile World Congress presence was a stroke of genius. It was an open stand for the open source community. There were no stand staff swiping your badge as you walked onto the stand, or areas that you couldn’t explore. It was the complete antithesis of most exhibitors at the event. Later in the day I was speaking to the CEO of a NASDAQ-listed company. He’d been asked to leave the stand of a well known infrastructure provider because he didn’t have the ‘right badge’. The stand was for invited guests only. He promised to visit the Android stand the next day.

Despite some of the jovial sentiments in this post, there’s a serious point. Our industry has been dramatically, and disruptively, reshaped in the last two years. The majority welcome this change and appreciate the innovation and competition that has followed. But like the visitors to Android’s stand at Mobile World Congress, do we all really understand what we’re cheering for? Do we really side-step the tricky question of Android’s actual openness (Android Market, Gmaps, Gmail and more, remain closed allowing Google to force a degree of compliance across manufacturers and operators). Will Android only deliver long-term benefit and share to low cost assemblers and manufacturers while merely representing a quick-fix for the ‘Old Guard’ manufacturers during troubled financial times (Sony Ericsson cited the influence of Android when it reported a euro 90m net income in 2010, up from a euro 836m loss in 2009.)?

Do we actually understand the implications of the platform’s potential fragmentation? Are carriers aware that one of the largest technical support drivers for Android users is related to firmware updates (an issue that didn’t register in the ecosystem 24 months ago)? It’s easy to get carried-away on a wave of excitement but we must be pragmatic in our evaluation of such a fundamental game-changer. Now behind the industry’s largest smartphone OS, it is Google controlling many of the core value-added services that operators desperately wanted to offer (and charge for); navigation, messaging, app portals etc.

Some commentators have likened Android to a Cuckoo, a bird that lays its eggs in other species’ nests, tricking them to raise the chick as its own. Personally I feel that’s a little extreme; Google is simply executing on a plan to commoditise much of the ecosystem (devices and networks) and in turn drive more eyeballs to its advertising inventory. Some will applaud the rampant march of the Android community, others will dismiss it, but most (like me) will acknowledge the platform’s limitations and subtle control points and forgive them in exchange for the wave of innovation and monetization opportunities that follow in its wake.

Two weeks ago, a leaked memo from Nokia CEO Stephen Elop likened Nokia to a ‘burning platform’. Elop remarked, In about two years, Android created a platform that attracts application developers, service providers and hardware manufacturers. Android came in at the high-end, they are now winning the mid-range, and quickly they are going downstream to phones under €100. Google has become a gravitational force, drawing much of the industry’s innovation to its core…Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable.”

Mr.Elop was in Barcelona. I wonder if he left with a badge or collectable Android figure?

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