When it was announced with much fanfare in late 2007, many felt that Android would change the way mobile phones were used, forever. After all, it was part of the Open Handset Alliance that was dedicated to promoting open standards on mobile devices. On board were the likes of Intel, Motorola, HTC, NVIDIA and Qualcomm, who were joined a year later by ASUS and Sony Ericsson. And of course, looming above all these was the company that was the main mover behind Android—search behemoth Google. Most of the Android code has been released under the free and open source Apache licence. And the first Android phone hit the market in 2008. So where does Android stand today?
On the surface, there’s no doubting the potential of Android. Although Linux has been used on mobile phones before, most notably by Nokia and Motorola, the devices that featured the OS did not really make headlines, barring the Motorola Ming, to an extent.
The reasons for these were many: the devices offered no discernible price advantage over others (unlike in the PC scenario, where Linux systems have always enjoyed a significant price edge); there were never enough applications around (again, unlike the PC scenario) and the devices themselves were not the most user-friendly.
Top this off with the fact that most companies tended to ‘hide’ their Linux phone portfolios and highlight their proprietary or smartphone OS-driven devices, and it was no surprise that Linux had not really taken off in the mobile space, even though it had carved a niche for itself and had proved to be a stable and fast OS. In fact, not too many people know that the much-hyped Moto RAZR 2, in fact, runs on Java Linux!
In short, cell phone operating systems seemed to be dominated by the likes of Symbian, Windows Mobile, Mac OS, BlackBerry and Palm, all of which had their own issues, having imposed restrictions on application development and loaded additional cost to the price of a handset. This is why the arrival of Android was greeted by many as a major breakthrough. It was not as if people had not tried using open source or Linux-driven operating systems on phones before—it was just that never before had so many names allied themselves behind a single OS.
And Android did seem to promise a lot. There was talk of just about every sort of application, ranging from 3D games (the demo of the Android SDK showed a clip of Doom), e-mail and office suites, to just about everything. There would also be an application store (the Android Marketplace) that would allow users to download applications directly on to their phones. Best of all, Android offered the mobile user’s ultimate dream—a phone that did everything at an astronomically low cost. Small wonder that many observers considered Android to be the ultimate iPhone killer.
Not all smooth sailing so far
The first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, was released in 2008 and while it did not exactly set the mobile markets on fire, it did attract a lot of attention with its easy-to-use interface and the fact that it did come with a number of applications that other phones did not have. For one, its near-seamless integration with Google’s services provided an almost desktop-like experience on the device. The fact that one could upgrade firmware over the air (without having to download software first onto a PC) as well as access dozens of applications on the Android Marketplace, led many to place it as the closest anyone had come to offering an iPhone-like touch interface. High praise indeed, considering that it cost considerably less than most devices offering similar functionality in the market.
There were, however, some rumblings. Many people felt that the OS was too closely tied to Google for comfort and it did have certain shortcomings—one could not view mail attachments that had been sent to non-Gmail accounts, for instance! The number of applications available on the Android Marketplace, too, were limited, as compared to those found on the iPhone’s App Store—you had no office suite or even a dedicated document viewer. The fact that all applications on the store were free of cost also deterred many developers from coming out with applications. The mobile space did not have a FOSS culture as yet and most professional developers expected to be paid for their effort.
Google has been working to alleviate these problems. A space was created for priced applications in February 2009, with developers getting to keep 70 per cent of the sales price and the remainder going to the carriers. The Android OS is also being considerably revamped, with the ties to Google’s services being made looser, or at least less apparent, if our sources are to be believed.
The challenge: more devices, more visibility
However, the biggest challenge is that Android has been relatively absent in markets worldwide. For instance, it is altogether missing in India, one of the world’s largest cell phone markets. There has also been, at the time of going to print, just one phone running the OS, which restricts user options. People might point to the iPhone’s success in this regard, but then Android does not have the same marketing muscle and advertising driving it as the iPhone does. Although a number of manufacturers—Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG, ASUS and Sony Ericsson, to name a few—have been promising Android devices, only one has made it to the market so far. We had expected to see a number of Android devices unveiled at the Mobile World Congress at Barcelona this year but even that came to naught!
Of course, it would be very premature to write off Android. But the fact is that manufacturers need to start getting their acts together if open source is to make its presence felt in the mobile OS space. So far, even the manufacturers that are part of the Open Handset Alliance seem to be more keen on using other operating systems than the one they had all come together to support in 2007! There can be no question about Android’s potential, which allied with Google’s phenomenal reputation and goodwill, should make the OS a winner in the mobile space. What it needs is more devices and more visibility. And it needs them fast because, come the end of 2009 and Nokia will be unveiling the Symbian Foundation OS, another open source OS for mobile phones.
Open source is well and truly on its way to mobile phones. But will Android be its flag-bearer? The coming months will reveal all. Watch this space…