When Google unveiled its open source Android operating system in November of 2007, there was pronounced buzz surrounding it becoming a dominant, flexible platform for smartphones. Based on the Linux kernel, and in the same spirit of other open-source applications and platforms, Android can be forked into many different versions and serve application developers and hardware manufacturers of all stripes. Shortly after its arrival, the T-Mobile G1 Android-based handset arrived, based on a hardware design from HTC. It has been a commercial and critical success, but then the strangest thing happened: Nothing.
In the months that followed the launch of the G1, nobody else delivered any Android-based smartphones, causing some analysts to pronounce Android a failure. All of a sudden, though, there are strong signs that Android’s initial promise as a flexible, enduring platform are about to be realized. That could influence many more mobile device categories — not just smartphones — for years to come.
In a recent column on PCMag.com, Sascha Segan asked this pointed question: “If Android is so cheap and so customizable, why isn’t anyone releasing Android phones?” That was a good question to ask, and it singles out the cost advantages and flexibility that Android has over other mobile operating systems, but, suddenly, there are new and imminent Android devices. Most notably of all, it also looks like we’ll see this open source operating system extend into many types of hardware categories.
In early May, Motorola confirmed that it will deliver several Android-based smartphones this year. In an earnings call, Sanjay Jha, Co-CEO of Motorola as well as CEO of the mobile devices unit, said “we are in detailed discussions with multiple carriers around the world about a few of our Android smartphones that we plan to deliver in fourth quarter, and we’ll deliver meaningful products in the fourth quarter.” That pronouncement has been backed up with news and photos on the specific Android-based handsets that Motorola has in the works. Photos of the first handset, Calgary, are online, featuring a sliding QWERTY keyboard and a carrier plan from Verizon. There are also photos and details out on Ironman, a follow-up, higher-end Android phone that will reportedly emphasize social networking features.
Meanwhile, Samsung has an i7500 Android smartphone in the works that is generating lots of buzz and photo tours on the web for its compact design and slick looks. On top of that, HTC, the original hardware provider behind the first G1 Android phone, has a follow-up Android handset called Magic.
Despite the long wait, there’s no question at this point that Android is proliferating out to a globally diversified set of smartphones. At the same time, surprises are arriving regarding how well Android has already performed when it has only been available on one handset. The most recent U.S. market share data from AdMob shows Android at 6 percent of the smartphone market — nothing to shake a stick at when only one handset drove that share growth after only year. Meanwhile, there are more than 3,000 applications now available on Android Market, the online store for Android applications, with the open source community actively delivering useful applications.
One of the initial hopes for Android, as an open source operating system that the community at large can shape and change, was that it would lead to surprising new applications. That, too, is happening, and the surprise is that Android is clearly going to spread to many new mobile device categories — not just smartphones.
GigaOM has reported on successful efforts to run Android on e-ink devices (electronic ink based platforms such as e-book readers). According to Om Malik, this is “big, big news,” because “now you can have a low-power screen device updated via wireless Internet access,” and if you “marry that to a touch-based interface, the opportunities are endless.” He expects commercial products based on Android to arrive in 12-18 months — that would open up a whole new arena for Android to play in.
Meanwhile, ASUS and other manufacturers are having success running Android on one of the hottest new mobile hardware categories of all: netbooks. ASUS has confirmed that it will deliver Android-based netbooks, and — because Android is a free, open source operating system — they could come in at very low price points. Netbooks have achieved success primarily by offering just the essential components that users need, at very low prices. Android is free and flexible, and it has a lot of potential in this fast-growing, price-competitive space.
The promise of a great open source platform or application is always that armies of developers and people with new ideas can take a malleable core and extend it into new technology territory. That’s what drove Firefox to more than 20 percent of the browser market, and it’s driving the success of open source databases such as MySQL. The Android naysayers jumped the gun on pronouncing it a failure in this regard. With many new handsets suddenly on the horizon, applications proliferating, promising e-ink devices coming, and a foothold in the raging netbook space, it now looks like we’re just starting to see how influential this open source operating system will become in the long run.