Understanding Google Android. Past, present, future

Google announced i’s Android mobile OS in November 05, 2007 amid a huge fanfare.

By now  all major handset manufacturers, except Nokia, have joined the Open Handset Alliance, set up to push forward the new operating system. As did some of the world’s biggest mobile operators, hardware, software and service companies. Promising us a plethora of new, innovative handsets running on a new open Linux based mobile OS, abundance of services and mobile software apps.

Yet here we are now, 19 months later, with a single device, from a single vendor, with  little above 1 million units sold. Another  device is just hitting the streets, and one more is promised in a few weeks. Kind of a lame result for all the hype that’s been raging about the new OS this past year and a half.

So what happened and what’s to come?

Well, it looks like making a new open mobile OS, ready to run on multiple devices and multiple networks is a pretty hard, labor and time intensive task, that very few of us appreciate.

Heck, making a closed mobile OS, for a single device, to run on your own hardware, is a pretty hard thing to do. Just ask Apple, which spent 2.5 years until it was able to give the iPhone something to resemble standard smartphone functionality. (Unless you believe Apple’s Kool-Aid, and think that things that are missing until iPhone OS 3.0 ships – Bluetooh, MMS, copy/paste, etc;–  were actually features that made the device better. ) Add-in different processors, display resolutions, hardware configurations and network technologies, and the whole task becomes immensely harder.

When Google announced Android in Nov. 2007, they did not have anything remotely ready to put out there on the street, not even for testing. What they had at the time was a PC emulator, SDK for developers of Android apps and, probably, a few prototype devices and software that Googlers could show their potential partners in OHA.

And it took Google  almost another year of hard work, together with HTC, to get the first, advanced prototype level Android device on the  market. And that’s what HTC G1/Dream actually was, as Andy Rubin admitted recently:

What we wanted to do for our market entry was make sure that we had one successful showcase product to prove that the product was reliable and robust and ready to go. We chose HTC as our partner for that… and … learned that (Android) 1.5 was the product I wished was 1.0.

Yes, HTC G1 with Android 1.0 had some cool features and innovations, but it was basically a showcase/prototype product, put out there to get some real life experiences and generate the interest among mobile developers and hard core users. And this is what it quite successfully achieved.

But Android 1.0 still wasn’t an OS that any other serious smartphone vendor would consider putting in any of his own devices. Even the new Android 1.5 Cupcake release isn’t. In software numbering tradition I would call what Google had in November of 2007 an early alpha version of the OS, Android 1.0 – a beta version, and the Cupcake/1.5 – Android Release Candidate.

Only a single other major manufacturer – Samsung – has braved Android 1.5, with a single handset – i7500 Galaxy. But, IMHO,  even this phone is more for the bragging rights and publicity, rather than being a serious attempt to make an Android phone. Yes, the specs on Samsung i7500 are impressive, except for HVGA resolution, which is all Android 1.5 could support.  Samsung will sell a nice number of them – somewhere in high five or low six figures in the next 2-3 months, depending on how hard they push it.  But, I bet that after the first production run, the OS inside Galaxy i7500 will be promptly updated with Android 2.0/Donut and probably even with a new TouchWiz UI, as soon as that software becomes available this fall.

And that’s where it gets interesting. Because Android 2.0/ Donut, due in September,  is the first real market-ready version of the OS that all other OHA members have been creating their handsets for from the beginning.

What we have seen so far – HTC G1/Dream, HTC Magic, Samsung i7500 Magic –  they are just a warm-up, test exercises and publicity tools. The opening shots in a great mobile OS showdown will be fired this fall, with the release of Android 2.0 and those additional 15-17 new phones running on it. This is the first time when Android based smartphones will have to start slugging it out for the pockets of real users with real competitors, outside of the realm of geek’o’sphere.

During Q4 2009 there will be a lot of excitement, interest and Android handset sales to the early adopter crowd craving for the latest and greatest handset in their pocket. But competition is not  sleeping too. With the new Symbian^2 smartphones, Maemo based Nokia devices, OS 3.0 based iPhones, Storm 2 Blackberries, Palm Pre/WebOS and WM 6.5 handsets – there will be a lot of goodness to choose from.

When the numbers come in the beginning of the next year, there will probably be huge headlines about how Android handset sales grew staggering hundreds or even thousands of percent and how Android’s smartphone market share increased several or even tens of times. But, due to a very low initial base, those numbers won’t really mean much . Though the absolute number  of millions Android handsets sold  would provide some indication of the level of interest in the new OS.

But the real showdown will start in the end of 2010/ beginning of 2011,  when mobile  devices on Android 3.0, Symbian^4, Maemo 6/Harmattan, Windows Mobile 7, next generation of iPhone OS, WebOS and Blackberry come out. All these players are now moving in the same direction – ironing out the kinks in device usability, especially touch; integrating PC, cloud service and always connected mobile device experiences; and wooing the developers to their platforms.  The releases I mentioned above will show us what they have come up with.

How will Android fair in this mobile OS/platform showdown?  Well, the early signs are promising. Android has generated a lot of interest among hardware makers, software developers and mobile operators. And it has a very good chance of becoming an important player in mobile OS market.

But it will be a far cry from the world domination that some hardcore Android believers are preaching about. Even if Android was the single best mobile OS out there, light years ahead of competition (which it is not), neither mobile vendors nor mobile operators will allow it.

Just look at the way current OHA members are doing things. Yes, they have committed to have one or several Android devices this year and will have even more next year. But only Motorola went (kind-of) exclusively Android, and, most likely, just because it couldn’t afford more. Spec-wise  Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony Ericsson – the most important Android players out there –  have at least equivalent and often better offerings with Symbian or Windows Mobile inside. And I’m not even talking about their “dumb” feature phones that, with the new Web Runtime/Widget layer are becoming smarter by the day.

Nokia also, with it’s 30%+ smartphone  market share isn’t going anywhere.

As you see, there are quite a few very strong players here, each has it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses. Google is one of them.

But with more and more dumbphones becoming smart over the next few years, there is plenty of room for everyone for a while in a smartphone market. The smart always-on mobile device is a truly new, emerging market category. Old experiences and strengths in mobile phones, PC or wired Internet does not give any of the incumbents in one field a lot of significant advantages. The key question here is how you merge all three for the best overall end user experience. And nobody has figured the right answer yet.

So yes, Google Android has a very good shot to become a serious player in this new market. Will it live up to the hype? Well, we are about half way through the beginning and will probably know at least a part of the answer in the next 18 months.

Author: Stasys Bielinis

While I like to play with the latest gadgets, I am even more interested in broad technology trends. With mobile now taking over the world - following the latest technology news, looking for insights, sharing and discussing them with passionate audience - it's hard to imagine a better place for me to be. You can find me on Twitter as @UVStaska'

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