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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.

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