Android has changed the Mobile Device Engineering business, forever

Android is a bigger phenomenon in Mobile Device Engineering business than commonly perceived. It has changed the industry landscape to a large extent, making new business flourish and older models fail. Did you notice these changes over the last few years?

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A term Quartz crisis is used to depict the change that had happened to the wristwatch industry in the 70s, when Quartz replaced the mechanical watches and left the swiss watchmakers behind. A similar revolutionary change also happened in Mobile Device industry in the last few years. This is a quick take on how did the Mobile Device industry undergo this change as seen over the last 8 years personally, and how did it leave a lot of organizations wondering on what happened to their mighty business.
Operating Systems before Android
Till mid of last decade (2005-2006), the Mobile Device industry used to be dominated by feature phones and some device specific operating systems. The major operating systems used to be Symbian (for Nokia phone lines), Windows Mobile (for Windows phones) and Qualcomm BREW (for phones with Qualcomm chipset), though some of the OEMs always attempted to build their own Operating Systems. Bringing out a phone program included a complex phase of building the phone software using one of these frameworks.
Skills on-demand
Building an UI in some of these platforms used to be quite a task. For example, in early BREW platforms, it took quite a few lines (read, hell lot of lines) of codes in C-like language to draw a single screen. Developers who had built skillset in one of the platforms (like Symbian, BREW etc) were high in demand.
Also there were a few niche engineers, who had built their skillset on the technology side. These niche developers were brought into the picture to work on network or device specific issues. However the access to code was only limited by the SDK or the APIs. Developers didn’t have access to code beyond that and needed enormous knowledge of the SDK and underlying platform to build and debug issues.
And there was Android...
Android came into existence sometime in 2008. That was a tremendous moment for Mobile Device industry, though it went unnoticed by many in the beginning. It started gaining momentum from 2009. Since then, the changes in building phone software have been dramatic.

1) A phone consists of whole lot of native screens. And drawing an UI become much simpler in Android. Though the Android IDE has gone through lots of changes since the early days, it was always quite easy to build an UI in Android compared to say BREW. Qualcomm did try to bring in changes into BREW platform to enable drag-and-drop features, but that was way too late. This single change of drag-and-drop UI design made life much easier for the developers.
2) Basic features of a phone started coming bundled with the Operating System itself. For example, not a single line of code was required to be written to send an SMS from a vanilla Android phone.
3) Android Application layer was java-like, which helped a lot of Java skilled engineers to join the Mobile Engineering bandwagon.
4) Being a complete open source program, it also gave access to the device driver level code to the developers. That opened up some opportunity for the Device driver engineers if an OEM was looking to add/modify a default device driver of Android.
5) Overall time-to-market for a phone program got reduced to large extent, thanks to the easy UI and the built-in functionalities.
What happened to the 3rd party service industry?
1) The work required to bring out a phone got reduced to a large extent. This in effect reduced the size of the phone programs for most of the third party RnD vendors. That was quite a challenge for the vendors, more so that it came right during the economic downturn of 2008.
2) The desired skillset got changed. Most of the OEMs preferred to modify the vanilla Android and give some changed look and feel, which required re-skilling the developers in Android UI development.
3) Android came with its own set of issues, like power/battery problem, which the OEMs and chipset vendors were eager to solve. However that kind of skillsets were not easily available in the market. There was money on the table, but no one was eager to take that.
In effect, many vendors were smitten by this change as they were not ready with a plan B. There was a demand-supply gap created. Since most of the OEMs abandoned their custom Operating Systems and moved to any of the 2 major OS (Android, Windows), leaving Apple with its own iOS, this situation continued to persist. The 3rd party RnD vendors needed to think laterally to get into the new market. But they were mostly too slow to change the direction.
Chapter in Change Management course
In most of the corporate Change Management courses, the example of Quartz watch is taken up to show how it changed the whole wristwatch industry and how the swiss watchmakers were left behind by their Japanese counterparts who had adopted the new technology while swiss watchmakers continued with the mechanical models.
Mobile Industry has also gone through a similar change over the last 5 years, though that has gone unnoticed mostly. Someday it would also get featured in the classrooms of business schools and case studies would be discussed on how a new operating system changed the whole industry at one go.
Till then, keep learning & get re-skilled every day.

Also published in LinkedIn blog.


Thank you for checking this article. I contribute regularly on Technology & Management related stuff. Apart from this blog, you can follow me at 

About me: I have been working in the areas of IT strategy & usage of Digital technology to deliver business growth. My areas of interest include Enterprise Mobility, Cloud Solution Architecture, Enterprise Architecture, Social Media and Big Data. I am an alumni of Indian Statistical Institute (MTech Computer Science) and also attended Harvard Business School Executive Education on Innovation and Driving Growth.

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