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Is Android The Perfect Mobile Software Platform?

Is Android an iPhone killer or is it just another failed attempt at taking Linux mainstream on a mobile phone?

Perhaps the most significant mobile platform to appear on the scene since Mr. Jobs and his team at Apple introduced the iPhone, Google’s Android offers a very compelling platform for cellular providers, mobile developers and end-users.

Android is an open source, “built on Linux” cell phone platform. While this is notable, Android is hardly the first Linux-based software for mobile devices. There have been a number of entries into the mobile phone space running on the Linux platform of one flavor or another — dozens of them, in fact. However, none of these phones have really moved the needle in terms of market or mindshare in the same way Android has done over the past 18 months. If you doubt that just search the web for Linux based phones. You’ll find lots of them — but not many that you’ve actually heard of, let alone seen or owned. The question that Google and the Open Handset Alliance have yet to answer is, “Can a Linux-based phone go mainstream?”

Besides keeping up on the state of things as a software developer who has spent a great deal of time living and breathing mobile applications these past fifteen years, my own informal means of determining what is “hot” in the world of cell phones is to take a mental note of what phones are in use by passengers on an aircraft as I make my way to the cheap seats in the back.

Over the years I have seen a variety of devices starting with (non phone) Palm devices, graduating to Treos and brick-like Windows Mobile devices, and then to Treos running Windows (yikes!). And iPhone has been big for the past couple of years. Of course the BlackBerry of the month is a steady staple amongst business users in first class, though that market has been impacted by the iPhone as an increasing number of business users have opted for the trendy phone from Cupertino.

So where does that leave Android? Have I seen many T-Mobile G1’s? A few, though it may be more indicative of T-Mobile’s lack of market share in my area and the fact that I haven’t flown for a few months. Of course there is a natural anxiety about buying the first release of anything, except perhaps the iPhone — the marketing wonder. My point is that to date, we have just not seen many successful cell phones based on Linux– but there is reason to believe that the end of marginal Linux cell phones is near. Device manufacturers the world over are reportedly devoting resources to bringing Android devices to market. There have even been rumors of a device manufacturer dropping Windows Mobile in favor of Android for an upcoming device!

Champagne or Beer?

Though much attention is given to smartphones and comparisons of Android to iPhone and/or BlackBerry are worth discussing, I think the real question for Android’s future is whether the open source platform can effectively scale “down market” to the every day phone given away in exchange for a two year contract at your local wireless store.

The high-end capable phones get all of the press and attention, kind of like the sparkling champagne, however most wireless subscribers are mostly interested in a free phone. A capable phone yes, but free is what we have come to expect, i.e. the beer. If Android can scale down to the lower end of the market where the “free” phones hang out and where so many of us have been accustomed to waiting two years for our free or heavily discounted phone, Android’s chance of surviving and even thriving greatly increase. If Android can penetrate that end of the market it will have arrived — and with it, open source Linux for the mobile market.

Besides being low cost (i.e. Free), what else might drive Android’s popularity amongs wireless subscribers? WebKit. WebKit is the open source browser engine which ships with Android. This is the same browser engine used by Mobile Safari, the powerful and capable browser which ships with iPhone.

Mobile content has always been a big topic and we’ve all watched it mature over the past years. Ringtones and games have been popular for years, but now mobile web browsing is an experience worth having. We used to look at a phone that boasted web access and wonder if it was any good. We might have even purchased a phone because it had the capability of going on the web, but the experience often was lacking.

The iPhone has brought the web to mobile users in an unprecedented manner and the result is game-changing as the amount of web content consumed by mobile users has been on the rise. If Android can bring that kind of web experience to the “free phones”, then we’ve got a winner. Carriers love web browsing because it requires premium data services — the place where carriers can really bring in the revenue. If Android can help drive monthly recurring revenue for the carriers, you’ll see Android-powered phones everywhere.

Beyond cell phones?

Talk has it that netbook manufacturers will offer Android as an alternative to the household staple from Redmond (Microsoft Windows for those of you who might not tune into commercial software). It is too early to say whether the netbooks will stick as a viable platform, but Android would be a fantastic platform for netbooks.

Lightweight in hardware, software and financial terms, an Android-powered netbook offers mobility, connectivity and capability. Application support, the challenge of most new platforms is really not a problem, just visit the Android Market where new applications are being launched daily by developers around the globe. Add a Terminal Services or Citrix client to Android so a business user can access the corporate network while traveling and you’ve got a great mobile platform for the entire market, be it a phone or a netbook. I also think Android also has a future as an embedded OS for appliances like printers and entertainment units, but I’ll save that discussion for a rainy day.

Android is a Linux platform — great, but what exactly does that mean? Android runs atop a Linux Kernel with a layered subsystem providing core computing services. Process and memory management are provided by Linux. User space applications are written in Java and even Android’s built-in applications are written just like the applications you and I can write for the platform.

The preferred development environment for Android development is the open source Eclipse IDE. The Android Developer Tools plugin for Eclipse provides a host of helpful tools for aiding in the development and debugging of Android applications. While the SDK is restricted to the Java programming language, it is possible to write applications in C for Android. I anticipate that writing applications in C will become more common and hopefully officially supported in a future SDK.

So is Android popular among software developers? Yes, very. Early on the Open Handset Alliance (err, I mean Google) put up lots of cash in the form of the Android Developer Challenges to attract developers to the platform. Thousands of developers from all over the world flocked to the platform and there are now loads of applications in the Google App Market. Fortunately, Android developers can release their applications through multiple channels — which is a welcome alternative to Apple’s approach of constraining all application sales to their own online store.

Android — is it the perfect mobile software platform? Can it dethrone iPhone? Well, perhaps that is not a fair or even relevant question.

The first challenge for Android is to establish itself as a platform deserving to stay — and I think it has made very good strides in this direction thus far. In the coming months we will learn more — if the new devices rumored to arrive on the market actually show up and bring smartphone-like features to the masses, things are going to be pretty exciting. If not, the road might be a bit bumpy for the Linux-banner waving Android.

Comments on "Is Android The Perfect Mobile Software Platform?"

flacvest

I think the Android platform is HOT. Hey it openly syncs with Linux via the Banshee Multimedia Player Application… What more can you ask for? Beat that Apple! Crippling your handsets… Tsk! Tsk! Honestly, I got sick to death of _trying_ to sync my iPhone 3G with another PC that had ick Vista on it that I didn’t even own just to back up a stupid telephone and picture data. Not to mention… the syncronization doesn’t even work correctly more than half of the time!!! Take that Apple! You just lost a customer! I pulled the trigger on a G-1 handset from T-Mobile last night because I have played with it on multiple occasions at the T-Mobile store, talked to guys about it on the COWON iAUDIOPHILE.net chat box, and my buddy has one and I agree with him: the call quality beats the iPhone 3G. Plus it has a real tactile keyboard which I have flatly been missing since being “divorced” from the true smartphone experience for Apple’s sterile vision of what chic should be… Had 3 generations of Treo from Palm… True Smartphones. Glad I will finally be getting the Real Deal once again. Should be arriving TODAY! Lucky Me!!

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wweng_linux

G1 is a genius(android) trapped in a handicapped body (The sorry excuse that is called G1 the cellphone hardware). It is sort of like Kindle Generation 1, a wonderful idea that is implemented with sub-standard hardware. But K2 (kindle generation 2) was a vast improvement from the ugly duckling, and I hope so can G2!

My phone just had an upgrade last week. I really liked how the new android reacts. It seems far more accurate on my touching on touchscreen and looks a lot of “prettier” in the GUI department.

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mojavelinux

Simply put, Android rocks. It’s a killer in so many ways. But that doesn’t really matter, anyway, because it’s not about winning. It’s about choice. And choice breeds longevity. Those of you criticizing the G1 should take notice that the Cupcake software update brought a more significant improvement to the capability of the phone than you would have gotten by replacing the G1 with another non-Android phone. It’s the software that matters. And because it’s open, it can be improved continuously, independent of any “product cycles”.

I’ve had my G1 for only a short time, but it has already done more for me than any proprietary phone I have ever owned. It proves that Linux doesn’t have to be this geeky alternative. It can be mainstream.

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manawiz

I found myself in a T-Mobile store in Santa Clara, CA picking up a charger because I’d forgotten mine at home. I carry an adp1 and had just upgraded to Android 1.5 (cupcake) before it was made generally available to g1 users. That caught the interest and excitement of the employees at the store. They told me that 4 of the 6 people who worked there had opted for g1′s and that the g1 was “one of their best sellers”. They were all waiting for cupcake with excitement and happy to see some of its features. That is just an anecdote but another way to look at the polling data. I think the biggest impediment to android market penetration in the U.S. is T-Mobile. When we get Android devices on Verizon and/or ATT things should pick up considerably.

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lry198010

I believe that linux derived platform will the the mainstream in the mobile device!

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rickpalen

How about Palm’s new WebOS? That is also supposed to be linux based and definitely forges new ground in terms of UI. I am seriously contemplating switching carriers to get one!

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fableson

Yes, Palm’s WebOS is based on Linux from what I understand – though precious little is available to the developer community at large. That will hopefully change very soon, we hope. Patches are already coming out for the device.

Before long we’ll be exploring WebOS and comparing it to Android on Linux-Mag.com. Stay tuned.

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biglinuxguy

Honestly, the hyperbole around Android, Palm\’s WebOS, et al., has really gotten old. Will there be a market for all of these operating systems? Well, sure, as long as there are companies willing to build handsets and other devices that use them.

Are any of them (including iPhoneOS, WinMo, Symbian, RIMOS, etc.) perfect? Hardly. There are warts on all of them that require application developers to select the platforms that they are going to develop for and ignore the rest due to the expense involved with porting to each platform (and the middlemen who control signing, app stores, etc.).

Android is a good use case for a particular market niche, but it is not the end all, be all operating system that it\’s hype claims. The same can be said for all of the other operating systems for mobile devices (and don\’t get me started on the OEM RTOSes, that\’s a decidedly downward spiral).

From a numbers perspective though, Android, like the iPhone, has something of an uphill climb to compete with Symbian, the current 800 pound gorilla. While I\’m certain that the opportunities are there, the realities are that the people who will buy an iPhone will not immediately ditch it for an Android phone just because of the hyperbole surrounding Android.

As was mentioned in the article, I\’d like their SDK to be usable by languages other than Java. When that happens, I will be more interested in creating apps for Android (I don\’t share Google\’s love for all things Java).

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Years after you originally posted this, we can see Android as the dominant operating system for mobile devices, supported by the funds of Google, and managed by the same company. The dark side of Google is that they usually want to give you stuff for free in exchange for permission to collect as much information about you as they can. Let’s see what Ubuntu Mobile brings to the market.

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