theunderstatement by MICHAEL DEGUSTA

Tesla Motors’ lineup of all-electric vehicles — its existing Roadster, almost certainly its impending Model S, and possibly its future Model X — apparently suffer from a severe limitation that can largely destroy the value of the vehicle. If the battery is ever totally discharged, the owner is left with what Tesla describes as a “brick”: a completely immobile vehicle that cannot be started or even pushed down the street. The only known remedy is for the owner to pay Tesla approximately $40,000 to replace the entire battery. Unlike practically every other modern car problem, neither Tesla’s warranty nor typical car insurance policies provide any protection from this major financial loss.

Despite this “brick” scenario having occurred several times already, Tesla has publicly downplayed the severity of battery depletion risk to both existing owners and future buyers. Privately though, Tesla has gone to great lengths to prevent this potentially brand-destroying incident from happening more often, including possibly engaging in GPS tracking of a vehicle without the owner’s knowledge.

How To Brick An Electric Car

A Tesla Roadster that is simply parked without being plugged in will eventually become a “brick”. The parasitic load from the car’s always-on subsystems continually drains the battery and if the battery’s charge is ever totally depleted, it is essentially destroyed. Complete discharge can happen even when the car is plugged in if it isn’t receiving sufficient current to charge, which can be caused by something as simple as using an extension cord. After battery death, the car is completely inoperable. At least in the case of the Tesla Roadster, it’s not even possible to enable tow mode, meaning the wheels will not turn and the vehicle cannot be pushed nor transported to a repair facility by traditional means.

The amount of time it takes an unplugged Tesla to die varies. Tesla’s Roadster Owners Manual [Full Zipped PDF] states that the battery should take approximately 11 weeks of inactivity to completely discharge [Page 5-2, Column 3: PDF]. However, that is from a full 100% charge. If the car has been driven first, say to be parked at an airport for a long trip, that time can be substantially reduced. If the car is driven to nearly its maximum range and then left unplugged, it could potentially “brick” in about one week.1 Many other scenarios are possible: for example, the car becomes unplugged by accident, or is unwittingly plugged into an extension cord that is defective or too long.

When a Tesla battery does reach total discharge, it cannot be recovered and must be entirely replaced. Unlike a normal car battery, the best-case replacement cost of the Tesla battery is currently at least $32,000, not including labor and taxes that can add thousands more to the cost.

Five Examples And Counting

Of the approximately 2,200 Roadsters sold to date, a regional service manager for Tesla stated he was personally aware of at least five cases of Tesla Roadsters being “bricked” due to battery depletion. It is unknown if there are additional cases in other regions or countries.

The 340th Tesla Roadster produced went to a customer in Santa Barbara, California. In 2011, he took his Roadster out for a drive and then parked it in a temporary garage while his home was being renovated. Lacking a built-in Tesla charger or a convenient power outlet, he left the car unplugged. Six weeks later his car was dead. It took four men two hours to drag the 2,700-pound Roadster onto a flatbed truck so that it could be shipped to Tesla’s Los Angeles area service center, all at the owner’s expense. A service manager then informed him that “it’s a brick” and that the battery would cost approximately $40,000 to replace. He was further told that this was a special “friends and family” price, strongly implying that Tesla generally charges more.

As a second Roadster owner discovered, the Tesla battery system can completely discharge even when the vehicle is plugged in. This owner’s car was plugged into a 100-foot long extension cord for an extended period. The length of this extension cord evidently reduced the electric current to a level insufficient to charge the Tesla, resulting in another “bricked” Roadster.

A third bricked Tesla Roadster apparently sits in its owner’s garage in Newport Beach, California. That owner allegedly had a similar prior incident with a BMW-produced electric vehicle. He claimed BMW replaced that vehicle, but Tesla refuses to do the same. The owner either couldn’t afford or didn’t want to pay Tesla the $40,000 (or more) to fix his car.

A fourth customer shipped his Tesla Roadster to Japan, reportedly only to discover the voltages there were incompatible. By then, it was too late, the car was bricked, and he had to ship it back to the US for repairs.

The whereabouts and circumstances of the fifth bricked Roadster the Tesla service manager expressed knowledge of are unknown.

No Warranty, No Insurance, No Payment Plan

Tesla has a “bumper to bumper” warranty [Page 3: PDF], but the warranty text allows Tesla to hold the owner responsible for any damage related to “Failure to maintain the Battery at a proper charge level at all times” — the meaning of “proper charge” doesn’t appear to be specifically defined. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Vice President of Sales & Ownership Experience George Blankenship, and Vice President of Worldwide Service J. Joost de Vries all became directly involved in at least one “brick” situation, with de Vries stating in writing that since Tesla’s documentation and warranty “identify in clear language to keep the Roadster on external power when parked” the decision to decline any warranty or financial relief was “correct and justified”.2

Unfortunately for current and future Tesla owners who encounter this problem, it’s also not covered by normal automobile insurance policies. This makes the situation almost unique in modern car-ownership: a $40,000 or more exposure that cannot be insured. After all, car insurance is designed to protect owners and drivers even when they are neglectful or at fault. The affected customers probably would have been in a better financial situation if they’d accidentally rolled their Teslas off a cliff, as insurance would generally cover much of those costs.

Due to Tesla batteries naturally decaying over time, Tesla offered Roadster customers a $12,000 “battery replacement program”. This program is intended to replace a Roadster battery with a new one seven years after purchase. When asked, the Tesla service manager said even if owners had paid in advance for this replacement battery program, they would not be allowed to use it to replace an accidentally discharged battery — they would have to pay the full $40,000-plus cost.3

The Santa Barbara owner was also informed that no other financing or payment plan would be made available to pay for the replacement battery, and that he needed to either pay in full or remove his dead vehicle from the Tesla service center as soon as possible.

Understated Warnings to Owners

With such a large price tag for a bricked vehicle, it would be reasonable to expect Tesla to go to great lengths to ensure their customers were fully aware of the severity of battery discharge. Instead it seems that Tesla, while working to make it clear their vehicles should always be left plugged in, also appears to have focused on trying not to spook their current and future customers about the potentially severe ramifications of complete battery discharge.

The Tesla Roadster Owners Manual begins with several “Important Notes About Your Vehicle” [Page 1-2: PDF], none of which make any mention of battery discharge. In Chapter 5 of the manual, where vehicle charging is addressed, Tesla states that the vehicle is “designed to be plugged in” and that allowing the charge level to fall to 0% “can permanently damage the Battery.” [Page 5-2: PDF] It does not specify that a completely discharged battery may need to be replaced, entirely at the owner’s expense, at a cost that could be the majority of the value of the vehicle.

Tesla did begin handing out a “Battery Reminder Card” [PDF] when a Roadster was brought in for servicing. However, the card gently and cheerfully prods owners to “Remember — a connected Roadster is a happy Roadster!” with no mention of the possible consequences of a complete discharge.

There is no warning regarding battery discharge on the actual power port of the vehicle itself, where a gas-powered car often contains warnings about issues like the use of leaded gasoline in an unleaded vehicle. There is also no warning on the power port or in the Roadster Owner’s manual regarding the use of extension cords.

What About The Model S?

It’s not just the Roadster — Tesla’s service manager stated the upcoming Model S definitely shares the Roadster’s discharge problem, describing it as fundamental to the battery technology. Another Tesla employee concurred, saying it would be “neglect” to leave the vehicle unplugged when it’s parked. This fits with statements by Kurt Kelty, Tesla’s Director of Battery Technology, that the Model S uses the same battery technology as the Roadster. Yet on Tesla’s Model S “Facts” page under “Charging”, potential buyers are presented with only the lenient guideline that “Tesla recommends plugging your Model S in each night or when convenient.”

Assuming the Model S has the same battery vulnerability as the Roadster, Tesla’s Model S FAQ is woefully incomplete at best. In the FAQ, Tesla explicitly addresses the question of what happens when their car is parked and not charging:

If Model S is parked and not charging, will the battery lose its charge?
Loss of charge at rest is minimal. For example, Model S owners can park at the airport for extended vacations without plugging in.

That’s the answer in its entirety — nothing at all about the eventual, inevitable, catastrophic battery failure that the Tesla service manager seemed certain of.

Even the minimal loss of charge statement is highly suspect. The Roadster’s owner manual [Page 5-2, Column 3: PDF] states that a fully charged car can be expected to lose 50% of its charge in just 7 days, clearly not a “minimal” amount. As far as leaving the car for an “extended vacation”, the manual [Page 5-3, Column 1: PDF] actually states that vehicles left for more than two weeks should not only be plugged in, but plugged into a special $1,950 (plus installation) Tesla High Power Connector that is not generally available at airports or elsewhere at present. Additionally, leaving a Tesla Roadster at the airport for an extended vacation would seemingly invalidate the warranty which says the battery “should never remain continuously unplugged for an extended period of time, regardless of the state of charge” [Page 5, Column 2: PDF] — practically the exact opposite of Tesla’s Model S FAQ answer.

The Model S battery could be very different from that of the Roadster. If so, however, this would mean not only that the Tesla employees are wrong, but that Tesla has made radical improvements in these areas but has decided not to actively promote them or even mention them prominently on their website. Barring that improbable scenario, Tesla’s marketing appears to be less than entirely forthcoming on this key issue.

Tesla’s Unorthodox Prevention Measures

While customer and marketing communication about charging are focused on gentle reminders, behind the scenes Tesla has seemingly been scrambling to try to ensure existing owners don’t “brick” their cars.

After the first 500 Roadsters, Tesla added a remote monitoring system to the vehicles, connecting through AT&T’s GSM-based cellular network. Tesla uses this system to monitor various vehicle metrics including the battery charge levels, as long as the vehicle has the GSM connection activated4 and is within range of AT&T’s network. According to the Tesla service manager, Tesla has used this information on multiple occasions to proactively telephone customers to warn them when their Roadster’s battery was dangerously low.

In at least one case, Tesla went even further. The Tesla service manager admitted that, unable to contact an owner by phone, Tesla remotely activated a dying vehicle’s GPS to determine its location and then dispatched Tesla staff to go there. It is not clear if Tesla had obtained this owner’s consent to allow this tracking5, or if the owner is even aware that his vehicle had been tracked. Further, the service manager acknowledged that this use of tracking was not something they generally tell customers about.

Going to these lengths could be seen as customer service, but it would also seem to fit with an internal awareness at Tesla of the gravity of the “bricking” problem, and the potentially disastrous public relations and sales fallout that could result from it becoming more broadly known.

Coming Soon: More Customers, More Problems

Tesla produced 2,500 Roadsters, but it plans to make 25,000 Model S vehicles by the end of 2013. This vastly increases the possible number of accidental “bricking” incidents. At the same time, the Model S pricing starts at $49,900 (after US tax incentives), broadening the market to households of far more modest means than the owners of the $109,000 and up Roadster. This in turn makes it even less likely that Tesla buyers will have the necessary tens of thousands of dollars to spare if they ever allow their battery to fully discharge.

Tesla has officially stated that “it is impossible to accurately forecast the cost of future battery replacements”, but the Tesla service manager said he expected the Model S battery to cost even more than the Roadster’s. If true, it would mean that a Model S battery failure could essentially render the car valueless.

Tesla is actively targeting the mass market, with CEO Elon Musk recently touting the Model X as “the killer app for families.” But as things stand today, families who fail to keep their car charged could end up unexpectedly forced to continue making payments on an inoperable and worthless vehicle. That would be a killer.

The Bottom Line

Tesla Motors is a public company that’s valued at over $3.5 billion and has received $465 million in US government loans, all on the back of the promise that it can deliver a real world, all-electric car to the mainstream market. Yet today, in my opinion, Tesla seems to be knowingly selling cars that can turn into bricks without any financial protection for the customer.

Until there’s a fundamental change in Tesla’s technology, it would seem the only other option for Tesla is to help its customers insure against this problem. As consumers become aware that a Tesla is possibly just a long trip, a bad extension cord, or an accidental unplugging away from disaster, how many will choose to gamble $40,000 on that not happening? Would you?


Other All-Electric Vehicles

While discharge issues are inherent to lithium-ion battery technology, it’s beyond the scope of this article to address the ramifications for electric vehicles in general. Regardless, a company’s battery management system and obviously their marketing and handling of the situation can vary.

The Nissan Leaf is currently the only other widely available all-electric vehicle in the US. A Nissan Leaf sales specialist was emphatic that their vehicle did not have the discharge problem. The Leaf warranty [Full PDF: Page 9] does however state that the owner must plug in the vehicle within 14 days of reaching zero charge, which does appear to differ from Tesla’s manual that says the owner must do it immediately. [Page 5-2, Column 1: PDF]

Personal Note

I’ve paid $5,000 for a Tesla Model X reservation. Either these issues will be resolved by the time it’s ready, Tesla will be gone by then, or I’ll most likely give up my spot and get a refund. No one has paid me to write this article. has no ads or sponsors.

  1. A written Tesla report on one “bricked” Roadster documents that the vehicle went from 4% full to complete discharge in seven days.

  2. Mr. de Vries also pointed out that at below 4% charge the car displays a visual “Plug me in” warning on its screen with an accompanying audible alert. This would seemingly only help owners who are actually sitting in the car.

  3. This would seem consistent with the language of the agreement [PDF], which actually stipulates that the replacement battery cannot be used while the car is still under warranty.

  4. Roadster owners have the ability to turn the GSM connection on and off via the vehicle’s settings screen.

  5. There appears to be no reference to Tesla having the ability to track a vehicle’s location at its discretion in either the data recording section of the Roadster Owners Manual [Page 1-2, Column 2: PDF] or the addendum that covers the GSM connection [Page 9: PDF] .

The announcement that Nexus One users won’t be getting upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich led some to justifiably question Google’s support of their devices. I look at it a little differently: Nexus One owners are lucky. I’ve been researching the history of OS updates on Android phones and Nexus One users have fared much, much better than most Android buyers.

I went back and found every Android phone shipped in the United States1 up through the middle of last year. I then tracked down every update that was released for each device - be it a major OS upgrade or a minor support patch - as well as prices and release & discontinuation dates. I compared these dates & versions to the currently shipping version of Android at the time. The resulting picture isn’t pretty - well, not for Android users:

Other than the original G1 and MyTouch, virtually all of the millions of phones represented by this chart are still under contract today. If you thought that entitled you to some support, think again:

  • 7 of the 18 Android phones never ran a current version of the OS.
  • 12 of 18 only ran a current version of the OS for a matter of weeks or less.
  • 10 of 18 were at least two major versions behind well within their two year contract period.
  • 11 of 18 stopped getting any support updates less than a year after release.
  • 13 of 18 stopped getting any support updates before they even stopped selling the device or very shortly thereafter.
  • 15 of 18 don’t run Gingerbread, which shipped in December 2010.
  • In a few weeks, when Ice Cream Sandwich comes out, every device on here will be another major version behind.
  • At least 16 of 18 will almost certainly never get Ice Cream Sandwich.

Also worth noting that each bar in the chart starts from the first day of release - so it only gets worse for people who bought their phone late in its sales period.

Why Is This So Bad?

This may be stating the obvious but there are at least three major reasons.

Consumers Get Screwed

Ever since the iPhone turned every smartphone into a blank slate, the value of a phone is largely derived from the software it can run and how well the phone can run it. When you’re making a 2 year commitment to a device, it’d be nice to have some way to tell if the software was going to be remotely current in a year or, heck, even a month. Turns out that’s nearly impossible - here are two examples:

The Samsung Behold II on T-Mobile was the most expensive Android phone ever and Samsung promoted that it would get a major update to Eclair at least. But at launch the phone was already two major versions behind — and then Samsung decided not to do the update after all, and it fell three major OS versions behind. Every one ever sold is still under contract today.

The Motorola Devour on Verizon launched with a Megan Fox Super Bowl ad, while reviews said it was “built to last and it delivers on features.” As it turned out, the Devour shipped with an OS that was already outdated. Before the next Super Bowl came around, it was three major versions behind. Every one ever sold is still under contract until sometime next year.

Developers Are Constrained

Besides the obvious platform fragmentation problems, consider this comparison: iOS developers, like Instapaper’s Marco Arment, waited patiently until just this month to raise their apps’ minimum requirement to the 11 month old iOS 4.2.1. They can do so knowing that it’s been well over 3 years since anyone bought an iPhone that couldn’t run that OS. If developers apply that same standard to Android, it will be at least 2015 before they can start requiring 2010’s Gingerbread OS. That’s because every US carrier is still selling - even just now introducing2 - smartphones that will almost certainly never run Gingerbread and beyond. Further, those are phones still selling for actual upfront money - I’m not even counting the generally even more outdated & presumably much more popular free phones.

It seems this is one area the Android/Windows comparison holds up: most app developers will end up targeting an ancient version of the OS in order to maximize market reach.

Security Risks Loom

In the chart, the dashed line in the middle of each bar indicates how long that phone was getting any kind of support updates - not just major OS upgrades. The significant majority of models have received very limited support after sales were discontinued. If a security or privacy problem popped up in old versions of Android or its associated apps (i.e. the browser), it’s hard to imagine that all of these no-longer-supported phones would be updated. This is only less likely as the number of phones that manufacturers would have to go back and deal with increases: Motorola, Samsung, and HTC all have at least 20 models each in the field already, each with a range of carriers that seemingly have to be dealt with individually.

Why Don’t Android Phones Get Updated?

That’s a very good question. Obviously a big part of the problem is that Android has to go from Google to the phone manufacturers to the carriers to the devices, whereas iOS just goes from Apple directly to devices. The hacker community (e.g. CyanogenMod, et cetera) has frequently managed to get these phones to run the newer operating systems, so it isn’t a hardware issue.

It appears to be a widely held viewpoint3 that there’s no incentive for smartphone manufacturers to update the OS: because manufacturers don’t make any money after the hardware sale, they want you to buy another phone as soon as possible. If that’s really the case, the phone manufacturers are spectacularly dumb: ignoring the 2 year contract cycle & abandoning your users isn’t going to engender much loyalty when they do buy a new phone. Further, it’s been fairly well established that Apple also really only makes money from hardware sales, and yet their long term update support is excellent (see chart).

In other words, Apple’s way of getting you to buy a new phone is to make you really happy with your current one, whereas apparently Android phone makers think they can get you to buy a new phone by making you really unhappy with your current one. Then again, all of this may be ascribing motives and intent where none exist - it’s entirely possible that the root cause of the problem is just flat-out bad management (and/or the aforementioned spectacular dumbness).

A Price Observation

All of the even slightly cheaper phones are much worse than the iPhone when it comes to OS support, but it’s interesting to note that most of the phones on this list were actually not cheaper than the iPhone when they were released. Unlike the iPhone however, the “full-priced” phones are frequently discounted in subsequent months. So the “low cost” phones that fueled Android’s generally accepted price advantage in this period were basically either (a) cheaper from the outset, and ergo likely outdated & terribly supported or (b) purchased later in the phone’s lifecycle, and ergo likely outdated & terribly supported.

Also, at any price point you’d better love your rebates. If you’re financially constrained enough to be driven by upfront price, you can’t be that excited about plunking down another $100 cash and waiting weeks or more to get it back. And sometimes all you’re getting back is a “$100 Promotion Card" for your chosen provider. Needless to say, the iPhone has never had a rebate.

Along similar lines, a very small but perhaps telling point: the price of every single Android phone I looked at ended with 99 cents - something Apple has never done (the iPhone is $199, not $199.99). It’s almost like a warning sign: you’re buying a platform that will nickel-and-dime you with ads and undeletable bloatware, and it starts with those 99 cents. And that damn rebate form they’re hoping you don’t send in.

Notes on the chart and data

Why stop at June 2010?

I’m not going to. I do think that having 15 months or so of history gives a good perspective on how a phone has been treated, but it’s also just a labor issue - it takes a while to dredge through the various sites to determine the history of each device. I plan to continue on and might also try to publish the underlying table with references. I also acknowledge that it’s possible I’ve missed something along the way.

Android Release Dates

For the major Android version release dates, I used the date at which it was actually available on a normal phone you could get via normal means. I did not use the earlier SDK release date, nor the date at which ROMs, hacks, source, et cetera were available.

Outside the US

Finally, it’s worth noting that people outside the US have often had it even worse. For example, the Nexus One didn’t go on sale in Europe until 5 months after the US, the Droid/Milestone FroYo update happened over 7 months later there, and the Cliq never got updated at all outside of the US.

  1. Thanks primarily to CNET & Wikipedia for the list of phones.

  2. Yes, AT&T committed to Gingerbread updates for its 2011 Android phones, but only those that had already been released at the time of the July 25 press release. The Impulse doesn’t meet that criterion. Nor does the Sharp FX Plus.

  3. A couple of samples just from the past week: 1, 2 - in comments.

Google announced the mouthful known as “Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich" today. The first bullet point of their presentation was a new system-wide font, Roboto. John Gruber quickly pointed out what had caught my eye as well: Roboto sure looks a lot like Helvetica, the typeface so famous they made a movie about it.

Notably, Helvetica was the default font of iOS until Apple switched to Helvetica Neue last year. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, as Picasso allegedly said: “good artists copy, great artists steal”.

You be the judge: here’s an animation comparing the two.
Click & it will stop so you can manually cycle through at your own pace.

Management caring deeply about their company’s products and using them every day is almost always a prerequisite of making great products. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg really does use Facebook all day. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo tweeted at least 30 times just yesterday. At the other extreme, I started at Apple under Gil Amelio, who used to have his emails printed out for him. On that basis alone it was hardly surprising he was a disaster.

So how about Google CEO Larry Page? It’s been over 3 months since Google+ launched, and he’s only made 7 public posts, including just one since mid-August. Turns out that’s still 7 more posts than Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has ever made. Since Google+ launched, Mr. Schmidt has found time to retweet Ivanka Trump’s promotion of “Snow Flower & The Secret Fan”, but apparently couldn’t find time to even join Google+. He’s nowhere to be found in the search results, and one can only assume he’s using his real name. He’s apparently also still using a Blackberry, so he’s hardly been a leader in the eat-your-own-dogfood department.

That seems to be a common problem for Google’s management when it comes to Google+:

Only 3 of the 12 people listed on the Google Management Team page have ever made a single public post on Google+, totaling just 29 posts ever and only 6 in September.

It doesn’t stop with the board and the high level management. Going one level down to the 6 Senior Vice Presidents anointed in Larry Page’s reorganization last April still reveals a lack of engagement: 4 of the 6 SVPs have made no posts since August and they’ve managed only 9 posts ever, all but 1 of which were by Andy Rubin.

In total, of the 18 most senior people charged with overseeing Google, 11 have either not joined or have never made a single public post, and 5 have barely used it at all. Only Senior VP of Social / head of Google+ Vic Gundotra and SVP of Chrome Sundar Pichai have made any effort to seriously adopt Google+.

The Raw Data

Here’s the full table of public posts since the beginning of Google+. Note that I’m counting a photo album as 1 sharing event and also that Vic Gundora’s posts page seems to fail if you try to go back past mid-July, hence the data gap there.

Larry Page213107
Eric SchmidtNot on Google+.0
Sergey Brin0933015
Nikesh AroraNo posts ever.0
David C. DrummondNot on Google+.0
Patrick Pichette032207
L. John DoerrNo posts ever.0
John L. HennessyNo posts ever.0
Ann MatherNot on Google+.0
Paul S. OtelliniNo posts ever.0
K. Ram ShriramNo posts ever.0
Shirley M. TilghmanNo posts ever.0
Alan EustaceNo posts ever.0
Vic GundotraUnk30+45578150+
Salar KamangarNo posts ever.0
Sundar Pichai0162017558
Andy Rubin071008
Susan Wojcicki001001

Pre-emptive Responses

1. “Google+ isn’t just about public sharing”

No, it’s not. But one of the key distinguishing features of Google+ is combining Facebook-style private sharing / friending with Twitter-style public posts / following. Even Facebook has now emulated this and Facebook’s management is far more active on their public feeds than Google is on theirs.

Further, I think it’s reasonable to assume a correlation between private use & public use: if you were constantly posting things on a service and each time you were given the option to make it public or private, surely sometimes you’d make it public, especially as a somewhat public figure wanting to help your own company’s new service get going.

2. “The board/top management shouldn’t be expected to use Google+”

Yes, they should - maybe not every member extensively, but not even a single post by a single non-executive member of the board? Can you imagine Fred Wilson not publicly using the major new product of one of his companies?

3. “Steve Jobs was really active on Ping?”

Ok, fair enough. But a music social network isn’t even remotely fundamental to Apple’s future whereas clearly Google thinks Google+ is central to its future.

4. “Google+ is really popular!”

Yes, it seems to be off to a good start. But management being disconnected from the company’s products bodes poorly for the long term - just ask HP.

"There are now over 500,000 Android devices activated every day, and it’s growing at 4.4% w/w"
Andy Rubin
June 28, 2011

By that measure, there should now be over 900,000 Android activations per day and October 20th should be the first day Google crosses the impressive milestone of 1 million activations in a single day:

They Made The Rules

From April 2010 until July 2011, Google periodically announced the number of Android device activations per day. While the specific definition of an activation is a bit unclear1, it’s the measurement Google itself has repeatedly chosen to publicly mark the success of its mobile platform. I’ve collected all 9 occurrences I could find where Google has reported this metric:

4/15/1060,000Google Earnings Call
5/20/10100,000Google I/O Keynote
6/23/10160,000Droid X Launch
8/4/10200,000Techonomy Conference
12/9/10300,000Andy Rubin Tweet
2/15/11350,000Mobile World Congress
5/10/11400,000Google I/O Keynote
6/28/11500,000Andy Rubin Tweet
7/14/11550,000Google Earnings Call

The most information was given in Andy Rubin’s aforementioned tweet where he announced not only that the number was now “over 500,000” but that it was “growing at 4.4%” week on week. Two and a half weeks later, during Google’s second quarter earnings call, they announced the number was over 550,000 - demonstrating that the 4.4% figure was in full effect. Extrapolating out from Rubin’s numbers leads to the expectation of 1 million activations per day on October 20th, as indicated by “Projection 1” in the chart above.

Tweet Carefully

That said, it’s entirely possible that Mr. Rubin overreached when he stated that the week-on-week growth was 4.4%, rather than a flat 22,000 per week (i.e. 4.4% of 500,000). Maintaining an ever accelerating growth curve as your base grows is challenging, even in a boom, and the history of Android itself had yet to truly demonstrate such a curve at the time of Rubin’s tweet.

It took 29 weeks for activations per day to go from 100,000 to 300,000 - an increase of 200,000. After that, the next increase of 200,000 took… another 29 weeks. So from May 2010 til June 2011 there didn’t seem to be a compounding growth curve, rather the number seemed to increase fairly linearly at roughly 7,000 per week. Clearly that must have started increasing rapidly ahead of Rubin’s tweet in order to reach the 22,000 / 4.4% number.

Even if Mr. Rubin’s 4.4% statement was overstating Android’s growth and they just maintained the flat 22,000/week increase, there should still be over 800,000 activations/day currently and it should still be crossing 1 million/day by early December, as indicated by “Projection 2” in the chart above.

Silence Isn’t Golden

One might have expected Google to tout a milestone like 750,000 or 800,000 activations per day, especially in light of all the recent Android bad news.

As Steve Jobs put it: “Usually, if they sell a lot of something, you want to tell everybody.” The trouble with telling everybody is that then if you ever stop telling everybody, it looks terrible. The inevitable question is “what bad news are you trying to hide?” Just ask Samsung, which decided it wanted to hide its (presumably poor) tablet sales numbers. Or RIM, which decided to stop reporting new subscriber numbers and average selling prices, presumably because both are quickly heading towards zero. This is surely one of the reasons Amazon has famously never reported any actual Kindle sales figures.

Since Google first reported activations in April 2010, they’ve gone an average of 8 weeks (median: 6.5 weeks) between reports. The longest gap is 18 weeks between the 200,000 milestone and the 300,000 Rubin tweet. It has been 11.5 weeks since the last report, so it’s probably too soon to declare it a truly suspicious silence, despite some seemingly major milestones having passed quietly.

When Will We Know?

Google first spoke about device activations on their Q1 2010 earnings call and last addressed it on their Q2 2011 earnings call on July 14th. So Google should say something on or before their mid-October Q3 earnings call, which will be just about when they’re crossing the 1,000,000/day mark if their 4.4% growth has held up. If they don’t mention an activations number on or before the call, the estimable Brian S Hall will get more evidence for his contention that we might be at peak Google and there will be even more calls for Sergey Brin to explain his unusually high Angry Birds scores.

Whether Google hits the number, misses the number, or says nothing at all, Android will soon have another landmark success, or another cause for concern.

  1. Google has stated that activations only include Android devices with Google services, thereby excluding Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color, forked branches like OPhone and Tapas, et cetera.

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