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Android : Will It Change the Way We Look at Phones?

It all started in October 2003 as Android Inc., co-founded by Andy Rubin, Rich Miner, Nick Sears and Chris White. All four of them went on to join Google. Before we heard of them, Google bought Android and added it to their list of services – Google was entering the wireless world. When Google considers buying you, either you’re very good, or Google has heaps of cash to splurge. In the case of Android, we’re still figuring which holds true. Based on the Linux kernel and released as an open source platform under the Apache license, Android is attracting wide industry backing.

The Open Handset Alliance was born on November 5, 2007. Google, HTC, Motorola and Qualcomm, among others, forged a 34-member strong conglomerate. Nevertheless, Android faces a battle against industry heavy weights such as Symbian and Windows Mobile who are certainly in no mood to take the threat lying down. In this age of cost and features, mechanical design, style and class are important criteria for today’s borrow-and-spend customer. “What’s inside doesn’t really matter. Except for the geeks, but those are not mainstream customers,” explains Eric Bustarret, an active mobile developer in France. With so much hype of surrounding Android, we got in touch with several personalities, including entrepreneurs, developers and critics associated with Android and the mobile platform.

Alexander Muse is the founder of Big in Japan, winner of Google’s 2008 Android Developer Challenge and developer of Shop Savvy. According to Muse, “the first Android handset was released almost a year ago. Since its launch, millions of handsets have been sold in the North American and European markets. Besides, thousands of applications have been built for the Android platform.”

In fact, this year, more than 12 carriers are launching 15 different handsets running Android. Muse fervently vouches for Android, “Imagine a free, open source operating system, every bit as powerful (in some ways more powerful) than the iPhone platform. Will it be big? Yea, really big.”

Among the other prominent mobile platforms, the latest rage is Apple’s iPhone, which developers claim is sturdier both in terms of hardware and software. Additionally, the large pool of independent developers that create appealing applications for the iPhone make it a killer. From an Indian perspective, however, the iPhone couldn’t recreate the American magic. Factors such as cost deeply affected the design marvel this side of the globe.

Eric Bustarret, a mobile application developer based in France, believes no one has the true answer to the most promising mobile application in the future. According to Bustarret, while Windows Mobile seems to be out of the game for now with no major update for more than a year, Windows Mobile 7 might change this.

Among the various mobile platforms today, Symbian enjoys the privilege of the highest market share. Android is popularly seen as the major competitor to Symbian today. According to various developers, while Symbian has market dominance on its side, it suffers from heavy complexity, poor toolkits and a restricted independent developer base. In order to better deal with such threats as the iPhone and Android developer base, Symbian would have to move towards a widget-based business and design model, which seems highly unlikely at this point, considering its saturation.

Muse voices the same concerns, “Symbian is too fragmented and does not support developers. The success of the iPhone can be traced to a nascent developer community that builds cool applications for the phone. There is no such community for Symbian.” The opinions don’t end here. The feeling is that Linux mobile is a joke without traction. At the end of everything, Android has received unwavering patronage with backing from Google and the OHA. Comparing the two, Linux is all hype with no shepherd and Google on the other hand is a trusted shepherd, gigantic, huge and with some really deep pockets.

Android has been touted as the long term winner. Symbian, today’s market leader, is backed (and now owned) by one significant handset manufacturer – Nokia. Compare this with Android – Sony Ericsson, LG, Samsung, Acer, ASUS, Motorola, Toshiba and Huawei, besides Intel, ARM and Texas Instruments. Last year, we all witnessed what happened to the DVD format battle of alliances with HD-DVD losing out to Blu-ray, that was promoted by a prominent list spearheaded by Sony Corporation.

Owing to its support from the open source community, Android is more stable when it comes to security threats, according to Xerxes Mullan of XTPL, an Indian company that develops applications for all mobile platforms including Android.

We were specifically interested in knowing what this meant for some other mobile platforms such as Windows Mobile. With players such as HTC actively participating in the Open Handset Alliance, HTC said it saw the open-source Android platform as a good opportunity to showcase innovation in its products and an upcoming technology to complement its portfolio. Ajay Sharma, Country Head, HTC India, agrees with this opinion. He claims service personnel associated with HTC have been imparted the technical skills to ensure there will be no limitation in the servicing of Android handsets in India.

Sharma adds, “Android is a platform with extremely tight security features, the operating system incorporates a sturdy architecture that offers enhanced data protection.” Sharma added they also have a very strong relationship with Microsoft, and Windows Mobile will continue to grow stronger and our focus will remain on both platforms and not single out any one of them.

Finally, we spoke to the king himself. When posed with our queries, a Google spokesperson said, “Android is built on openness – it’s a free, open source mobile platform that any developer can use, and any handset manufacturer can install. Android is the first mobile operating system built specifically with the web in mind. Over 4 billion people now have mobile phones and it’s estimated 1.2 billion more will be sold in 2009. Mobile phones are sophisticated computers with access to the internet, but the vast majority of today’s innovative web applications are still built for PCs. Android aims to change all that. We believe that by opening up mobile devices to all developers we can encourage innovation, benefiting users everywhere. A better web, whether people access it via PC or mobile, is not just good for users but also good for Google, because as the internet grows so do our opportunities.

Therefore, from a consumer point of view, all the hype put to rest, Android is not here to transform the industry nor revolutionize it in any way. All other platforms are here to stay. In fact, irrespective of the operating system, all manufacturers are walking hand in hand protesting the government’s decision to increase VAT. Beauty is skin deep, probably doesn’t hold entirely true when it comes to mobile phones! Geeks and techies apart, no one else is really interested in the OS of the phone. What we do know though, is that mechanical design, style and available applications will drive this industry in the days to come. We believe this will drive software platforms and handset manufacturers to promote the developer community for their respective handset models to grow in number.