opinion


Google’s robotic dance

Android has been closely watched over 2009, seen by some to represent a clear threat to both the establishment bulk of Symbian and the new-world order of Apple.

As 2009 drew to a close, Motorola’s latest phone, the Droid (sold as the Milestone in Europe), was being heralded in some quarters as the saviour of the US vendor’s malingering handset unit. Based, as the name suggests, on the Google-owned Android operating system, the Droid, if it fulfils the potential some suggest it has for its manufacturer, will surely gain a status to match iconic predecessors like the Startac and Razr.

The suggestion that the Android operating system could be about to contribute to a turnaround in the fortunes of a fallen giant like Motorola speaks volumes about the progress the platform has made in 2009. This was a year, after all, which began with just one Android handset in the market-the HTC unit dubbed the Dream, nicknamed the Googlephone and marketed by T-Mobile as the G1.

In mid-November, at the time of writing, there are more than 20 Android handsets either in the market or in the offing, with a Christmas rush of models still expected to come. As well as HTC and Motorola, the likes of Huawei, Samsung, Acer, LG, Dell, Sony Ericsson and even Philips are name-checked in the lists of products that are commercially available or anticipated by year-end.

That represents substantial growth in terms of product portfolio over the year-albeit from the smallest of beginnings. So for Android these remains very early days indeed. Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza says the firm is predicting that Android will gain no more than five per cent of the smartphone market for 2009. In the third quarter of this year, she says, the platform’s share of this market was 3.5 per cent, which equates to around 1.5 million sales (Gartner does not track shipments into the channel, only sales to consumers).

But in the slightly longer term, Cozza says, Gartner’s forecast for the Android platform is “very positive”. She continues: “From 2010 we should start to see all the vendors that have picked Android up offering more devices; certainly the likes of Motorola and Sony Ericsson are saying this is what they are going to do. And, if we see lower end units it will become more mainstream. We’ve published a prediction that sees Android being the second most popular platform, behind Symbian, in 2012.”

One of Android’s successes has been the widespread backing it has gained, with carriers and handset vendors alike populating the Open Handset Alliance that was created to oversee the development of the platform and ecosystem. In October US carrier Verizon struck an agreement with Google that will see the two firms collaborate on bespoke Android handsets and applications, sharing the marketing distribution and service development workloads. T-Mobile has also nailed its colours to the Android mast, leading the way to market with HTC’s first Android product and following up with others.

2009 has seen further iterations of the operating system, with version 2.0-known as Éclair-released in November. But, while Google remains effectively in charge of the technical roadmap for the platform, one of the most substantial challenges that awaits Android is the level of fragmentation within its own community, says Gartner’s Cozza.

“The problem is that Google has a hands-off approach in the marketing of Android and prefers to leave it to each manufacturer to do their own thing. I think that this could backfire, because this will not improve the awareness among consumers of the Android platform and ecosystem. Consumers are attracted by a single ecosystem like you have with Apple and there’s a danger that the consumer will see Android as a number of different environments,” she says.

Cozza’s comments call forth one of the central debates within the handset sector at the moment: Are communities better at developing product than individual companies? The success of Apple’s iPhone and its wider ecosystem, arguably the most closely managed example the industry has to offer, seems to find in favour of autocracy. The sluggish pace of development at the Limo foundation, meanwhile, could be used to argue against the selection of true community development models.

Android sits somewhere in between. But while the backing of some of the industry’s big names is a boon for Android, there could indeed be consequences if Google doesn’t keep those names focused. Samsung is a useful example. While Taiwanese vendor HTC might have played the role of Android’s standard bearer-and although it is now making concerted efforts to push its own brand in the market, launching television advertising campaigns, among other strategies-it is simply not a tier one handset brand.

Samsung, on the other hand, is a heavy hitter, with a very large installed user base. Its presence in the Android camp is important. But, although the Korean vendor looks set to bring an end to its days of OS promiscuity, it will continue to develop handsets for Windows Mobile and its own new operating system, Bada. Should Android fail to capture the user’s enthusiasm because there is no unified marketing strategy, the likes of Samsung may not be particularly motivated to continue the push on their own.

“There are some really great location-based applications in Android Market [the Android application store],” says Cozza, by way of a warning. “But nobody really knows about them.”

The mass market will prove increasingly crucial to Android’s success, and here it will face stiff competition from Symbian and from vendors’ proprietary operating systems like Bada. HTC, continuing to break new ground for Android, recently released the Tattoo, targeted more a the mid than the top tier and Android will require more product in this range to get those all-important volumes up.

Some reluctance from Google to get truly stuck into the handset market might be understood. But in November the unveiling of the firm’s own operating system, Chrome, gave observers yet more reason to question the firm’s commitment to the success of Android. Since Android has been mooted as an operating system for crossover devices like netbooks and smartbooks, the presence of another OS from the same company-and one which, it has been said, will not necessarily be restricted to the PC/laptop market-does seem a little strange.

The first proof of concept the industry required from Android was the arrival of handsets from a range of manufacturers, and 2009 has seen this delivered. Now those handsets need to start moving in volume and the end user community has to be persuaded that they are worthy of selection. The handsets will likely be heavily subsidised in most markets, so cost is not the issue.

The increasing popularity of application-led mobile data usage means that consumers are now selecting handsets with the ecosystem in mind as well as the product itself. If the Android ecosystem continues to be given over to the vendors designing the handsets, and skinning them individually with their own user interfaces (HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Blur), then perhaps there is a risk, as Cozza suggests, that the ecosystem may whither on the vine. Or that Android may simply not be a platform ecosystem of the kind that we have come to know.

A push from carriers like Verizon could help to keep the platform prominent, of course but, in the end, Google’s feelings for the Android platform will play a more decisive role in its future success. What those feelings are remains unclear, given the firm’s renowned taciturnity. One thing seems evident, though. The opportunity is there for Android to become one of the most widespread mobile platforms in the market; an opportunity that, at the start of the year, wasn’t necessarily so apparent.

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