What Google Play's first birthday means to you

One year ago, March 6, 2012, Google renamed Android Market, and nothing is the same sense. The rebranded Google Play pushed forward a transition started in November 2011, with the broad expansion of content beyond apps. The name change also represented something bigger, shift in emphasis away from broader Android to the search giant's siloed services and brands. Google sought to imitate Apple while tackling wild Amazon.

On Play's first birthday, Google Android -- not the skinned software Amazon, HTC, LG, Samsung and others ship -- is a 98-pound weakling gone super steroids. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company sells apps, ebooks, gift cards, magazines, music, movies, TV shows and devices through the online store. There were no devices available a year ago, but now accessories, Chromebooks, smartphones and tablets. Three different computers are available, including the new and Google-branded Chromebook Pixel. Also: Two different Nexus 4 smartphones and Nexus 10 tablets and three Nexus 7 slates -- four if counting 32GB HSPA+ models twice, with different cellular SIMs.

I can't overstate what Play means to Google, and possibly to you. The store anchors a broader strategy to build out an end-to-end hardware, software and services platform rivaling Apple's and keeping runaway successes like Amazon and Samsung from gaining too much influence over the entire Android ecosystem. Google is 1 and 0 -- win against the retailer, but not the electronics manufacturer.

Looked at differently, Play, the devices and all that curated content is about selling a Google lifestyle. The "Market" was all about an Android lifestyle. The rebranding and everything that followed dramatically shifted the digital lifestyle focus to Google.

Android runs Aground

A year ago, Android was lost at sea, with several captains' mates at the wheel struggling to steer in different directions. Amazon looked to fracture the Android tablet market with its highly-customized OS and compelling curated experience matching Apple's and, in some respects, exceeding it.

Meanwhile, Samsung sold so many Android phones, influence grew organically fast. Neither company offered then, as now, the newest Android version on most devices -- and none without some changes. Heck, Amazon ships its own web browser on Kindle tablets. I warned 11 months ago: "Google has lost control of Android".

Around the same time, Forrester Research predicted that proprietary Android versions, like Amazon's, would surpass the Google Android ecosystem by 2015. Such circumstance would likely fracture the open-source platform into multiple fatally fragmented Android ecosystems. Beyond development, Google wasn't really follower or leader, but surely destined for the rocks with the likes of Amazon steering the ship to self-interest rather than destination entire ecosystem.

Play represents leadership, taking charge -- one of several coordinated actions that put Google at the helm of good ship Android. Even if some partners leave the vessel for their own destinations, a core Android ecosystem will steam ahead. The OS technically still is open source, but the major benefits are Google's and put the company at the forefront of the new computing era, rather than sinking with the old one.

Meet Appooglesoft

Look at the change! Google sits on atop a platform that looks like an Apple-Microsoft hybrid. The fruit-logo company develops everything important for its core ecosystem, selling a curated and integrated hardware-software-services stack. Sure there are third-party apps and physical goods, like cases and peripherals. But Apple controls the core.

Microsoft, by contrast, sells and licenses software, while more recently expanding to services and dabbling in hardware. The two models are almost mirror images. Apple makes most money from stuff it sells directly. Microsoft primarily profits from products other people sell. If there is no OEM-made hardware, Microsoft software sells to no one.

Google gives away Android for free, but benefits indirectly from attached products and services on devices third parties sell. There, the licensing model resembles Microsoft's. But now with Play and all those devices, Google also has established, in less than 12 months, something that looks lots like Apple end-to-end, too. In many ways, Google has created an ecosystem and supporting platform that is the best of what both Apple and Microsoft offer. Google Play is a critical component to making the strategy work.

You must understand, and many of you will disagree, people don't buy products. They buy brands. Such as Amazon, Apple or Samsung -- Kindle Fire, iPhone or Galaxy S III. Android by itself, with lots of would-be captains wrestling the rudder, is not strong enough brand, particularly if Google wants to be a player in the so-called post-PC -- or what I call the cloud-connected or contextual cloud computing -- era. Google Play is critical to that end, and by no means the most important. But the store is the most visible piece, as that's where people go to buy the stuff supporting the Google lifestyle -- what Google doesn't give away with Android.

A year later, people who want stock Android can purchase a Nexus device directly from Google at Play -- one that feels like buying something from Apple. Hardware, software and services integration is tight. Digital content is available in all major categories and there is deep social sharing built in, whether Google+ or support for other services. Google and its sub-brands are front, center and behind -- all around. Play is an integral part of promoting the Google lifestyle, something more tenuous in March 2012 than it is today.

Photo Credit: Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock

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