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Android set for score of handsets, but risks fragmentation

Google watches carefully over its creation's early steps

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This week's Computex show in Taiwan has thrown the spotlight on new device formats such as netbooks, and the role that Linux hopes to take in those, which suggests Android could ride that wave soon. And on the other side of the world - at Google's annual developer conference in California - the message was rammed home, though the head of mobile platforms, Andy Rubin, admitted there was a danger of fragmentation.

In some ways, form factors like netbooks may be a better short term option for an immature system like Android, since it is rather less challenging than a smartphone on the software and multimedia front, but while Sony Ericsson is waiting for a more evolved version of the OS, Google still says there could be as many as 20 Android phones on the market by year end.

Enhancements for Android

Despite the focus on Linux netbooks in Taipei, Google was more engaged in convincing developers its store could rival Apple's and Nokia's, and its OS could challenge Symbian even in high end smartphones. Indeed, it refused to confirm reports that it has set up a group to work on Android for netbooks, even though some vendors like Acer are already promising netbooks running the OS. However, as Sony Ericsson has made clear with its decision to wait until release 2.0 to launch Android phones, we need to see this upgrade and some heavy duty multimedia capabilities before handsets based on the platform will get into the superphone league.

However, the conference saw Google highlighting the enhancements it plans to make Android go head-to-head with Symbian, and becoming more responsive to demands from the broader mobile developer community.

Android 2.0 is codenamed Donut and appears to be targeted at a wider range of devices than the current version, as it will support QVGA, HVGA and WVGA resolutions. This takes it beyond the 320 x 480 HTC phones and suggests MIDs or tablets that can display an entire web page on a mobile screen – lending further weight to the assumption that Android will soon turn up in netbooks.

Developers were out in droves to hear about Android, and as EETimes points out, one reason for their interest – and a warning signal to Microsoft – is the price. "You get a solid operating system, browser and GSM stack for free," said an engineer from Garmin, which plans a navigation-oriented Android phone (as opposed to $8 to $15 per handset for a WinMo license).

Though Android is very much a work in progress – and contrary to many open source ideals, nearly all the work is being done by a small and tightly controlled Google team of about 65 people – it is already considered more sophisticated than other mobile Linux environments, according to many developer attendees.

Google representatives variously said there would be 16, 18 or even 20 smartphones this year, and Rubin said that the devices would be made by eight or nine different manufacturers.

Although the US has led the drive to Android so far, with China Mobile about to launch a version of the HTC Magic soon too, Rubin thinks Europe will be the driving force. He said fierce competition in the region would drive operators to create “highly distinctive versions” of the Android phone, emphasizing the way that the software platform supports cellcos' need to design their own branded user experiences rather than being subservient to the vendors.

Filling up the app store

There are now about 4,900 applications available for Android, and Rubin explained there are three broad models for the app store. One, vendors can download Android for free and provide access to the apps, but not Google software such as Gmail. Two, they can sign a distribution agreement to include Google apps on the phone. And three, the 'Google Experience' will allow manufacturers to use the Google logo on the phone, but have no say over the applications available. He said most of the phones set for launch this year would use option two.

To boost the store further, especially as Ovi Store launches (and gets over its initial and embarrassing technical hitches), Google is looking for new ways to lure programmers. Nokia has run developer contests and all the stores are talking up their particular revenue share deals, but Google has taken a leaf from American Idol and is offering hard cash.

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