These are the droids you are looking for

The driving forces behind Google’s foray into the mobile platform space  –  The Open Handset Alliance and the Android Open Source Project – have shown off developments for the operating system which will allow handset builders to deploy the platform on yet more devices, even as it is gaining some significant traction in the market.

The latest flavour of the Android SDK version 1.6 also known as ‘donut’, introduces a number of new features including support for CDMA and additional screen sizes like QVGA and WVG; gesture APIs to support finger gestures in apps; a text-to-speech engine; and a quick search box that developers can use to integrate Google Search services within any application.

An experimental Android feature out of Google Labs also promises users a new browsing experience in the shape of Fast Flip that claims to “combine the best elements of print and online articles.” Fast Flip allows users to ‘flip’ left and right through news headlines and feeds, while tapping the screen brings up a short summary of the page and zooming allows users to see the content in greater detail. Google said the offering is designed to speed up the web browsing experience by making the flow ‘seamless’ and delivering more personalized content.

Devices running Android 1.6 are expected as early as October, 2009, and handset vendors are falling over themselves at present to get their own Android-based devices onto shelves before the lucrative holiday period starts.

Among those joining the throng are South Korea’s LG Electronics with the announcement of its first Android-based device. The company said that the LG-GW620 features a three-inch, full touchscreen and slide out QWERTY hardware keypad, with a focus on email and social networking services, although finer details were scant. More details on the device will be revealed closer to its launch in Europe in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Meanwhile struggling US vendor Motorola has started its fight back, with the unveiling of its first Android powered smartphone known as the Cliq in the US and the Dext elsewhere. With a somewhat similar form factor to LG’s offering, the Cliq/Dext features a 3.1 inch HVGA touchscreen, with a full size, slide out QWERTY keyboard nestled underneath, a five megapixel camera, 3.5mm headset jack, wifi, GPS, and support for up to 32GB of removable memory.

As is the trend among most vendors that have adopted the Android platform, Motorola has skinned the OS in its own style and developed an interface known as MotoBlur. The Cliq will be available exclusively via Android fan T-Mobile USA in the US in time for Christmas. Under the name of Dext, the device will also be available with Orange in the UK and France, Telefonica in Spain and America Movil in Latin America. None of the operators have yet revealed pricing or tariffs for the device.

The forthcoming Cliq is expected to be the first of many Android-powered devices from Motorola. The beleaguered US manufacturer has been ratcheting up its Android strategy over the summer, hiring developers and sinking yet more resources into the platform. Christy Wyatt, vice president of software platforms and ecosystem at Motorola recently said: “We believe Android and open software has the freedom and flexibility to foster innovation, accelerate time to market, and deliver the most personal and customized mobile experiences for consumers.”

But if the rumours are correct, the Cliq might not be the first Motorola Android handset to hit the shelves in 2009. In an advertisement that started broadcasting mid-October, Verizon Wireless turned Apple’s marketing on itself with a video that proclaims, “IDon’t have a real keyboard, run simultaneous apps, take five megapixel pictures, customise, run widgets, allow open development, or have interchangeable batteries. Everything iDon’t, Droid does.”

While it’s entirely possible that ‘Droid’ will just be the name given to Verizon’s forthcoming portfolio of Android-based devices, it is thought that the an Android-based handset to emerge from Motorola’s labs will be officially named the Droid, and is none other than the device code named the Sholes. The word on the web is that the handset will hit shelves in the first week of November, which ties in nicely with the recent advertising pitch.

But if the rumours are correct, the Cliq might not be the first Motorola Android handset to hit the shelves in 2009. In an advertisement that started broadcasting mid-October, Verizon Wireless turned Apple’s marketing on itself

Late in 2008, Moto announced plans to slim down its handset platforms portfolio, from over 20 different combinations of operating system, silicon and user interface (UI), to just three handset platforms—Android, Windows Mobile, and its own proprietary OS, P2K, which is used on devices such as the RAZR. As a result, Motorola’s portfolio will shift to the higher end of the handset tier, although the company is gambling that over the next few years, the Android and Windows Mobile platforms will filter down through the mid-level so it can still address the mass market.

And finally, Android has won further support from its biggest cheerleader to date   Taiwan’s HTC – which recently unveiled what it is pitching as a mass market device   the Tattoo. The handset, which owes its moniker to the fact that it is highly customisable, was available in Europe first at the beginning of October, and will roll out in markets around the world in the following months.

The Tattoo is the second phone to use HTC’s in house designed Sense interface, the first being the Hero. Speaking at the recent launch of the Sense UI, HTC CEO Peter Chou said: “Our strategy with HTC Sense is to allow us to differentiate ourselves, and also to build a closer relationship with people.” Chou revealed that HTC has spent the last three years covertly developing a ’specialist software team’ to sit alongside its hardware unit. This has brought hundreds of software engineers to the company, which specialises in Windows Mobile and now Android handsets, he said.

“Today we probably have the most Android and Windows Mobile developers outside of Google and Microsoft,” Chou said. “HTC has spent millions of man-hours developing a better HTC-branded software experience that makes all of this simple and engaging to customers.” Buyers of the Tattoo will also be able to design and purchase their own unique handset covers to alter the physical look of the phone as well. The device includes Google Maps, search, Google Mail, and Android market. It also features a 3.2 megapixel autofocus camera, 3.5mm stereo headset jack and expandable microSD memory.

Nokia sees future in Windows, Linux

Meanwhile, handset king Nokia is looking further afield. In August, the Finnish handset giant gave its clearest indication yet that it is looking to reduce its reliance on the Symbian platform by announcing a collaboration with Microsoft and making another foray into the mobile Linux space.

Nokia clearly feels the need to make some changes. The firm is feeling the pressure from its rivals and has seen its market share shrink in recent quarters. Second quarter 2009 handset market data from Gartner revealed that while Nokia leads the market overall—and is still number one in the crucial, high-growth smartphone sector—it is losing points across the board. The Finnish vendor’s handset portfolio is skewed towards the low end, where the market is contracting, and Gartner said that Nokia’s flagship smartphone—the long-awaited N97, which it was hoped would cement Nokia’s position in the high end—“met with little enthusiasm at its launch” earlier this year.

As a result, the vendor is reaching beyond its Symbian heritage in a bid to plug gaps in its line-up. One such move is an expansion into the burgeoning ultra-portable computer market, in partnership with Microsoft. In what is one of the most significant developments in the firm’s recent history, Nokia unveiled its first mini-laptop product, the Booklet 3G, in late August and revealed that the device will run a version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system.

Analysts said that Nokia’s decision to go with Windows, rather than a Linux-based OS, which had been anticipated, was the most surprising element of the announcement. But there was identifiable logic in the decision. “There has been some disappointment with Linux netbooks so far,” said Carolina Milanesi, research director at Gartner. “Nokia’s brand is big in the mobile phone space but not in the PC space. Having Microsoft on board will give Nokia a little more strength in that market.”

Powered by Intel’s Atom processor and weighing in at 1.25kg, the Booklet features HSPA and wifi connectivity as well as A-GPS and integrated Bluetooth. But while the Booklet represents Nokia’s bid to get a foothold in a new hardware sector, it was also designed to showcase the firm’s Ovi service portfolio. The launch, Nokia said, was “another important ingredient in the move towards becoming a mobile solutions company.”

Milanesi conceded that the provision of a device and service ecosystem will be a key differentiator in the netbook space and will help Nokia to distinguish itself from the likes of Asus and Acer. But she stressed that Nokia is floundering at the top end of the mobile handset market, having not done enough to compete with the slick new wave of user interfaces led by Apple’s iPhone. “Usability issues have made it difficult for Nokia to exploit the potential of its phones,” she said.

“There has been some disappointment with Linux netbooks so far. Nokia’s brand is big in the mobile phone space but not in the PC space. Having Microsoft on board will give Nokia a little more strength in that market.”

The introduction of the Booklet came shortly after Nokia and Microsoft announced an alliance that will see the two companies collaborate on the design, development and marketing of mobile enterprise platforms, including Microsoft Office Mobile and other business communications software for Symbian devices. The initiative will look to introduce software for a broad range of Nokia smartphones, starting with the business-focused E-series range.

The two companies will also jointly market these offerings to enterprises, carriers and end users. New business products are expected to appear in 2010 and dedicated teams will be established in both companies to work on the new initiative. Microsoft business division president Stephen Elop said the deal would focus on email, collaboration, Web 2.0, SharePoint, instant messaging, presence and other rich Office mobile applications, including the ability to view, edit, create and share Office documents with mobile-optimised versions of Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft OneNote.

Less than a week later, the Finnish company announced plans to introduce more high end devices on the Linux-based Maemo platform. The first of these is the N900, which follows on from Nokia’s previous generation of internet tablets such as the N810, and uses the latest Maemo 5 software, which supports multitasking and allows users to have dozens of application windows open and running simultaneously.

The N900 improves on Nokia’s previous tablet devices by actually giving it cellular connectivity and phone features. However, the device still boasts a touch screen and full QWERTY keyboard, supported by an ARM Cortex-A8 processor, up to 1GB of application memory and OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics acceleration, a five megapixel camera and Carl Zeiss optics, with 32GB of storage, which is expandable up to 48GB via a microSD card.

“With Linux software, Mozilla-based browser technology and now also with cellular connectivity, the Nokia N900 delivers a powerful mobile experience,” said Anssi Vanjoki, executive vice president, markets, at Nokia. “The Nokia N900 shows where we are going with Maemo and we’ll continue to work with the community to push the software forward. What we have with Maemo is something that is fusing the power of the computer, the internet and the mobile phone, and it is great to see that it is evolving in exciting ways.” The Nokia N900 will be available from October with an estimated retail price of €500 excluding sales taxes and subsidies.

Back in June Nokia hooked up with Intel to “define a new mobile platform beyond today’s smartphones, notebooks and netbooks” using Linux and open source technologies such as oFono, ConnMan, Mozilla, X.Org, BlueZ, D-BUS, Tracker, GStreamer, and PulseAudio, sparking rumours that the company was preparing to branch out beyond Symbian. When MCI recently quizzed Nokia on its commitment to Symbian, the company would only say that it “remains strongly committed to its current open OS software strategy for smartphones, which is based on the world leading Symbian software.”

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