Now Wait for Android
The first Android prototypes emerged recently at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. T-Mobile International AG has said it wants to launch the first Android handset in the fourth quarter of this year. (See Android in Sight.) Analysts and developers, however, think the overall Android handset market is further off.
"We're not going to see Google take over the mobile phone market in the next twelve months," says Justin Davies, founder of mobile consultancy Ninetyten, which has just developed the Buddy Ping mobile social networking application. He reckons it will be 36 months before the platform goes mainstream.
"We think it will be two to three years before the platform is mature enough to ramp up for mass-market," agrees analyst Richard Windsor at Nomura Securities .
Davies says that developers will drive the take-up of Android phones. Google is hoping for applications that make users say "I must have an Android phone," he says. To that end, Google is giving out $10 million in awards to developers that develop the best code for the phone.
"The promise of Android lies entirely in the developer community, seeded by contributions from Google to provide a baseline of features and applications which will then, by virtue of contributions from the developer community, blossom into a richer overall set of experiences than what Microsoft, Palm, or Symbian can muster," notes Forrester Research Inc. analyst Charles Golvin.
Google still faces a chicken and egg problem in bringing mobile developers to the table, however. "It is an exciting platform," Davies says. "But until they've got distribution, why should I spend my time porting applications to Android?" The distribution channel is what established mobile operating system players like Symbian Ltd. have over Google, Davies says: "Most of the kind of tie-ups that Google has done is with what I'd class as second- and third-tier phone manufacturers, like Samsung."
So for now, Davies is considering porting his firm's application to Symbian, iPhone, and then Android.
He does say, though, that some of the features of the Google development environment are attractive and "easy to work with." For instance, there's the ability to develop applications on top of the mobile phone browser rather than digging into the handset OS. "I can write a Web application in 20 minutes that would take me half a day on the mobile phone operating system."
This is attractive for developers, particularly now that the iPhone has popularized this way of working. It is not a panacea, however, particularly if Google and its carrier partners want to use more sophisticated data in their bid to push more specific mobile advertising to the handset. For instance, browsers cannot currently pull a user's location information into the mix; this has to come from a native application.
The open-source nature of the Android operating system has also started talk about "fragmentation" of the code base, particularly as Google is expected to release version 1.0 straight to the developer community.
Interestingly, Davies expects that what this actually means is that a hacking community will emerge around Android phones, much like the coders who develop applications on top of the unlocked iPhone. He doesn't expect this will much affect the regular consumer.
Google has had some form of Android SDK available since November. The search giant hasn't yet said when it will release the first cut of the OS, and no one that Unstrung spoke to for this article was exactly sure when it would arrive.
"I'd say they have to have something out by the end of the year," hazards Davies.
Google hasn't yet replied to Unstrung's questions on its operating system.
— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung