If you are a marketing person and you haven’t been following what Google is doing with Android, you should be because it’s fascinating stuff.

Android is a mobile operating system that was developed by the company of the same name, acquired by Google, and is now an open source project developed by a The Open Handset Alliance, a multinational alliance of technology and mobile industry leaders including Google, Motorola, Samsung, Sprint, HTC and around 40 others.  The stated goal of the Alliance is to create “greater openness in the mobile ecosystem”, allowing the industry to “innovate more rapidly and respond better to consumers’ demands.”

There are currently more than 20 different devices that run Android including the new flagship devices from Motorola and Samsung.  There is a Google-controlled Android Marketplace with over 10,000 applications that run on the OS.  Because the code is open source, handset manufacturers are free to extend it to support any hardware they like which means you can have phones with both touch screens and keyboards and screens with various resolutions.  Android also lets you have multiple applications running simultaneously (something Blackberries have done forever but iPhones cannot do).  On the surface, smart phones running Android offer compelling advantages over the iPhone and Blackberry where customers can get the best of both worlds in terms of a touch screen, a hard keyboard, a pile of interesting applications, a choice of carriers, etc.

Oh but there are devilish details……

First of all, not all Android devices are created equal.  There are now 3 different releases of the OS installed on phones being sold today.  There are also hardware differences, firmware differences and custom code on each device.  The result is that a developer who builds an application for Android has no guarantee that it will run on all Android devices.  For developers, this makes the market for an application potentially smaller, for customers, there is confusion when they purchase an application around whether or not it will run.  This so-called “splintering” of Android is bound to confuse customers and is causing some application developers to scale back investments in the Android platform.  From a market development perspective, these are serious issues.  Google needs a thriving developer community if it wants to have the Android Market stand up against the Apple Application Store.  Of course Google has the Google application set which are arguably the most compelling applications for an Android device.

This brings me to the issue of Google branding.  Even though I still hear people refer to “Google Android”, the Adroid brand is not a Google brand, it now belongs to the Open Handset Alliance.  There are in essence 3 versions of Android devices on the market:

  1. Android – Any device manufacturer can download Android and develop with it with no formal agreement with Google and no Google applications pre-installed on the phone.
  2. Android with a Google Distribution agreement – manufacturers agree to sign a distribution agreement with Google which allows them to ship their devices with the Google application set pre-installed.
  3. Android with “The Google Experience” – Here the manufacturers gets to pre-install the Google applications and also gets to include a Google logo on the phone itself.  In exchange for this the carrier and the manufacturer agree not to remove the applications from the phone and also agree not to censor applications in the Android Market.

The different levels are interesting from a Google branding perspective.  First of all, as much as Android is “open”, manufacturers are not going to be able to ship the Google applications with their devices without some sort of agreement with Google.  Developers who want to sell their applications in the Android Market need to comply with the Android Market Developer distribution agreement and pay a 30% transaction fee.  Google is also taking Apple’s practice of (often seemingly arbitrary) censorship of what applications get to be included in the Apple App Store head-on by offering up the Google logo in exchange for a promise not to censor.

So what does this mean from a branding perspective?  In my opinion Android as a brand is going to move farther and farther away from the Google brand.  It’s an advanced operating system but that’s it.  There’s no guarantee that the Google apps are there, or that the full Application Market is available.

A device with a Google logo on it, on the other hand, has all of the above.  If you want a the Google apps pre-installed, and the complete Android Market, you want to look for that logo.  Consumers, in my opinion, will differentiate strongly between Google branded phones and generic Android phones.

Are there risks in doing that for Google?  The biggest is probably that those phones will be the choice of people who want to get access to pornographic or other offensive applications (the horrifying Baby Shaker iPhone application comes to mind).  Could that tarnish the Google brand?  Personally I think the risk is small given that Google has complete control over the Market.  If a serious problem did arise, they could easily react to it.  At the same time, brand associations, once formed are hard to shake (pardon the pun).

I’m positive that case studies will be written on what Google is orchestrating right now.  I’m just not sure if they will be positive or negative.  Either way, it’s interesting to watch.

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