Android thoughts two years later


A couple years ago when Google's Android was first announced, I greeted the news with a quite bit of skepticism. I wondered whether it was truly an open OS that could be installed on various devices, and it turned out it was. And though it passed my initial test, I hadn't really given the OS much consideration until just recently. I thought back then it had the potential to gather momentum - especially with a giant like Google backing it - but only time would tell.

Well, time has passed. Two years in fact... amazingly quickly. And now it looks like Android is going to be on a shitload of devices pretty soon. I already owned a T-Mobile G1 as a test phone, but recently I bought an Android-powered Archos 5, and have been really, really impressed. Android has become a very good mobile OS that can compete with the iPhone and any other mobile OS else out there.

Now, if you think back to when Android was announced, this wasn't exactly a foregone conclusion. In 2007, the iPhone had just launched and turned the entire mobile world on its head. Android was aimed at a completely different type of device - as shown by their first emulators which had an interface that looked like a Nokia e61 or Blackberry - physical keyboard, "soft keys" for menu choices, etc. The iPhone's touch screen interface was obviously completely different from the original Android target. It seemed to me back then that Google was going to have to put a lot of work into the OS in order to get it to match what was then the new state of the art.

Fast forward a couple years, and it seems Google's done it. The Archos 5 is a pretty slick device with a nice, usable GUI including a great web browser and media capabilities. It's only running v1.5 of Android - with v2 coming early next year, it'll be even slicker. And have you seen the screenshots of Verizon's DROID phone? This, to me, bodes very well for the OS as a whole going forward. I won't even put in caveats - yeah, Android has bugs, and some usability issues, potential for fragmentation, etc. Whatever! Extrapolating from where Android is now, and how fast they got it there from 2007, it's pretty easy to see big things for the OS in the future.

How big? Well, that's tough to say, but it seems to me it has the potential to really take over the mobile market. It's just gut intuition, but looking at the various options out there, Android seems to be the best positioned to succeed: The UI is slowly-but-surely catching up to the iPhone in terms of user-experience. Bunches of manufacturers are launching Android devices which is good both in terms of total numbers and worldwide coverage (from China to Europe to the US, in all price ranges). The developer story is a good one - easy and open. And finally, there's lots of wild-card devices out there like eBook readers, GPS devices and web tablets that could also play a big role.

If Google can keep up the pace of development and avoid fragmentation of the platform, Android might really become the "Windows" of the mobile world quite quickly.

Actually, that brings up a thought. What about the other mobile OSes? Let's see...

* Windows Mobile - God, who knows? Never count Microsoft out, but they have really screwed up here. Microsoft would have to launch something very compelling in v7, then execute flawlessly to take advantage of their established Enterprise and Home monopolies to build momentum. They could do it.

* Symbian - I've completely given up on this platform. Developer as well as consumer confidence is completely shot and the next versions are years away, and even then are questionable as to whether they catch up to the state of the art.

* Palm WebOS - It's a great niche platform, but I can't see it growing beyond a few million devices, can you?

* Blackberry - I think it feels a lot like the Palm - a nice OS launched on focused devices.

* iPhone - It seems unstoppable now - both the iPhone and iPod Touch - but I think developer and user frustration at the lock-in is going to give Apple some headaches. Then again, Apple hasn't played their "iPhone mini" or "iPod Tablet" cards yet, which would provide lots more devices out there at different price points. They could be selling 30MM devices a month in a year, who knows?

* Maemo - I love this OS, but can Nokia execute and get developers on board? Nokia will sell *a lot* of these phones over the next few years, but if the innovation isn't there and developers don't follow, it'll be relegated to niche status like Palm and Blackberry as well.

* Android - It's open, it's easy to develop for, it's got major manufacturer backing, and it's improving quickly. Google needs to get the marketplace story worked out, and make sure manufacturers don't splinter the OS too badly, but right now if you were a device maker, why would you choose anything else?

All this brings up a question - Does there really need to be a "winner"? I think natural market forces say "yes." There are too many players in the mobile OS space now and some have to go. Even if you consider the massive number of mobile consumers out there, there's still only so many resources to go around - for developers, manufacturers and consumers - and these will be focused on fewer and fewer platforms until one or two leaders emerge. Maybe I'm wrong, but I just can't imagine a heterogeneous world of mobile OSes, with seven or more competing platforms surviving over the next five years.

Anyways, in summary, I think it'll be interesting to see what happens during this first really big push of Android devices. They could all launch with fanfare, and then just as quickly fade away from public attention again like we've seen with various platforms in the past. Or the world could be really ready for an iPhone alternative, and with the marketing budgets of big carriers and manufacturers, Android could be pushed to a new level of interest, making it a real player and a focus of both consumers and developers.

I guess we'll find out in a couple years! See you then!



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