Apple’s iOS is a huge platform not just because of the success of the iPhone, but because of the other devices running the software. The iPod Touch in particular has been a popular gift for the last few years, and Android really has not had a competing product. It’s incredibly valuable to have non-phone media consumption devices strengthening platform, but Android has only recently started appearing on such devices.
Sony has just announced that its new Android-based Walkman Z-series media players are coming to the US. Let’s take a look at where Android is at in the PMP market, and examine the issues that still must be addressed to take on the iPod Touch.
Google support and updates
For a long time, Google would not even certify an Android device that was not a phone. Getting Google’s royal assent means that a device gets access to the Google apps like Gmail, Talk, and Market. Without this, any media device is dead in the water. Samsung eventually broke through that restriction with the Galaxy Players.
So now we are finally getting to the point that OEMs are able to easily get certification for the Google integration, but software support could be an issue. For as much as we complain about modified software on phones, it can be so much worse on PMPs. The maker can take more license with the interface and features as there is no carrier partner to consult with. Giving the OEM a free hand can result in an indulgent ROM full of self-promotion.
Any media player running Android is going to be a low-profile device, at least at first. If there is anything we know about Android device updates, it that the most popular devices are the ones that get the updates. When users of a PMP are not under contract with a carrier, and there aren’t even that many of them, it’s easy for Sony or Samsung to stiff them on updates. Older versions of the platform can cause new Google features to be inaccessible, and apps to crash in the absence of expected APIs.
The Sony device is launching with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which is already a year old. The announcement made no mention of intentions to upgrade it. Samsung’s players are also on Gingerbread, and it’s unlikely there will be updates.
The traditional role of a PMP is to playback music, and Android is finally doing better in this respect. A year ago the situation was beyond bleak, but innovations like Google Music and the redesigned Music app make things much better. The Android Market now sells MP3s, adding to the convenience of the Amazon MP3 app. Users can get songs from two sources, and access them from the cloud.
Samsung and Sony both have their own media ecosystems, which is fine. However, it would be a mistake of hubris to promote these systems on the phone to such a degree that the better cross-platform options are not evident to novice users. The official Google Music app might be tucked away where users won’t see it, and the Amazon app is likely to be missing altogether.
With video, Apple is clearly in the lead. Services like Netflix have helped make Android capable, but iTunes offers a huge catalog of currently running TV and new films. The Android Market has movie rentals, but they are limited.
One of the places that a non-phone mobile device can attract attention is gaming. Android’s gaming chops have been improving little by little over the last year, and now we have phenomenal titles like Shadowgun, Dead Space, and Sprinkle. Android’s old fragmentation issue could rear its ugly head though.
Some games are restricted to certain types of mobile SoCs. Nvidia’s Tegra platform is one of the most gaming-friendly out there thanks to Nvidia’s efforts to recruit developers. The new Sony Walkman devices run a Tegra 2, so there should be plenty of great-looking games available from the Android Market.
Devices from Samsung in the past have relied on single-core Hummingbird processors. These are fine components, but they don’t have the gaming might of a Tegra chip, or even the newer dual-core chips from TI or Qualcomm. When the tightly-controlled iOS platform can run games like Infinity Blade on similar hardware, Android media devices need faster hardware to compete.
Price vs performance ratio
As much as software and media matters, a lot of the decision-making process comes down to price, and the value people perceive. The Sony Walkman Z-series will run from $249.99 for the 8GB, up to $329.99 for the 32GB. The cost isn’t outlandish, but Apple has managed to get the price of the 8GB iPod Touch down to $199. The 32GB is just $299. At each level the iPod is cheaper.
It’s tempting to say that the hardware in the Sony device is better, so that should justify the price increase. The problem is that media players are casual consumer devices in a way that phones aren’t. A PMP is a consumption device; needs to be good at entertaining you, not running your life like a phone does. An iPod is very good at running games and managing media. If the price of the Sony device can’t even match that of the iPod, it’s an easy choice for most buyers. Sony has no choice but to view that faster hardware as a way to bring the Walkman to parity with the iPod, not as a reason to charge more.
Samsung too has issues with its price to performance ratio. The 8GB Galaxy Player 4.0 matches the price of the 8GB iPod Touch, but the hardware is not as good as the Sony device. Recall that the Galaxy Player uses a Samsung Hummingbird SoC at 1GHz. This chip can’t run games of the same quality we see on the iPod.
Devices like the Galaxy Player or the Walkman Z are not bad. Far from it; they are every bit as capable as a similarly specced Android device. Apple just has the lead in price and features in this market segment. For these Android PMPs to be successful, they need to undercut the iPod.