Android's on top – will Nokia and RIM let it in?

More likely that Nokia will go for WP7

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But a decision like that is more serious for Nokia. The firm has clung to its own OSs, and there is still power behind its argument that it needs to create a fully integrated environment like Apple's especially for emerging economies, its growth engine. Of course the firm will be considering other options, but it would be hasty to adopt Android or Windows now. Instead, Elop needs to make the Qt strategy far more explicit, and hasten the arrival of truly game-changing MeeGo devices. Otherwise he will just be feeding the Android machine and reducing Nokia's own freedom of action and ability to differentiate, despite the temptations of joining the in-crowd.

Android takes the lead

Shipments of Android smartphones rose sevenfold year-on-year in the fourth quarter, to reach 33 million, with Samsung and HTC in the driving seat, said the analysts. The year before, its total was just 8.7 per cent. This time around, the Google OS gained a 33 per cent share of smartphone shipments, just ahead of Symbian, despite the latter's continuing strength in emerging economies and on lower end handsets. Symbian shipments grew from 23.9 million in Q409 to 31 million, but its share was down from 44 per cent to 30.6 per cent.

The Nokia system still has a massive legacy installed base, but the Finnish giant will be concerned at the failure of the reworked, open-source release, Symbian^3, to revive the platform's fortunes. Symbian^3 made its debut on the flagship Nokia N8 last summer. The Symbian base is increasingly focused on the low end of the smartphone spectrum, and is highly vulnerable to low cost Android devices from firms including LG and ZTE. After the big two, Apple iOS claimed 16 per cent of fourth quarter smartphones. iPhone shipments rose from 8.7 million to 16.2 million year-on-year, but their smartphone share still slipped slightly from 16.3 per cent last year. RIM boosted shipments from 10.7 million to 14.6 million, which squeezed its share from 20 per cent to 14.4 per cent, firmly overtaken by Apple now. Windows OSs saw a decrease in shipments from 3.9 million to 3.1 million, so its share was halved from 7.2 per cent to 3.1 per cent, while WP7 achieved 2 per cent share in its first two months on sale.

Honeycomb breaks Android in two

Android was also making strong headway in the nascent tablet sector, according to another analyst report, from Strategy Analytics. This found that the Google OS gained 21.6 per cent of the global market in Q4, up from just 2.3 per cent in the third quarter and mainly driven by the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Android tablet shipments rose from about 100,000 in the third quarter to 2.1 million, even without the release of the Honeycomb OS version, which is adapted for larger screens.

Apple iPad had 75.3 per cent of the sector. That trend should accelerate with the release of tablets running Android 3.0 or Honeycomb, the first version to be optimised for large-screened devices. While first generation Android tablets like Samsung Galaxy Tab were compromise products, the new wave – products like the LG G-Slate – will be far more viable alternatives to the iPad. Honeycomb launches officially this week and will be far more effective as a tablet OS than Froyo. The bad news – it is a "fork" in the platform, not fully compatible with Android 2.x and creating more fragmentation for the Google system, and potentially an entirely different apps base.

It seems increasingly likely that Android 3.0 will be targeted only at tablets while smartphones continue with 2.3 or Gingerbread, and then gain a separate upgrade, possible 2.4. The Honeycomb release, whose SDK was released recently, will support a user interface for large screens, including iPad-style form factors around 10-inches. Other features of Honeycomb include improved graphics performance with 2D and 3D hardware acceleration; multicore processor architecture (though it is still not clear whether dual-core will be essential); enhanced multimedia; and new options for connectivity and enterprise users. Another important change is an extensible DRM framework, which should help address the complaints of video firms including Netflix that there is no consistent DRM system across different Android devices.

Honeycomb will still support a range of DRMs, but it will offer a single programming interface to all of them. The biggest debate centres on how far Honeycomb will be fully compatible with other Androids, because of its radically different UI techniques. The icons and screens will be presented in a "vibrant, 3D experience" on the larger screen space, according to Google, and will move from the single-app norm of a phone to a multi-window approach closer to a PC desktop. Only apps written specifically for Honeycomb will really take advantage of this rich, interactive UI. However, those written for phones and Android 2.x will run, and even see some improvements.

According to Steven Vaughan Nichols of ZDnet, Honeycomb is a fork and it is clear that "Honeycomb is going its own way. There is some good news for developers who don't want to redo their Android 2.x work for Honeycomb." But others argue that this is just a different user interface spin, rather like HTC Sense, which will not affect the underlying Android platform and will be fully backwards compatible with 2.x. This would allow developers to run the same apps across phones and tablets, though – as on the iPad – there will be some who specifically target Honeycomb and its new UI.

One way to address OS wars, and the fragmentation between different releases of Android, is to step up the progress towards true mobile virtualisation. Jason Perl of ZDnet argues that Android ODMs and OEMs could agree to standardise on one or two hypervisors (which abstract the hardware from the OS), so that the process of developing ROM updates for Android smartphones and tablets would become easier. He writes: "The low level device drivers which used to be in the OS are now integrated into the hypervisor, and it becomes a group effort by the vendors to integrate that support there instead of the OS. Instead, the hypervisor vendor creates "virtual" device drivers that expose common services to the virtualised OS, such as networking, display and I/O. No matter whose hardware that virtualised version of Windows or Linux is running on, it runs exactly the same, provided the same hypervisor is used.” It may not solve Nokia's dilemmas, but it would certainly address the number one threat to Android's rising star.

Copyright © 2011, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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