Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/06/07/google_ponders_android_future/

Android set for score of handsets, but risks fragmentation

Google watches carefully over its creation's early steps

By Wireless Watch

Posted in Mobile, 7th June 2009 07:02 GMT

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.

The second Android Developer Challenge (ADC2) was announced at the developer conference - entries for ADC2, using the current Android version, 1.5 or Cupcake, will compete for three top prizes in each of 10 app categories. There will also be an additional cash prize for the top three programs across all categories. The 'best in show' pot is $250,000, with $150,000 and $125,000 for the overall second and third placed products. The top place in each category gets $100,000. The Idol twist is an element of consumer participation.

Anyone with a Cupcake device – which currently means a Vodafone/HTC Magic, though Samsung and HTC/T-Mobile are close behind – can download and rate any of the competing apps in two rounds of judging, says CNET. Users' votes will account for 45% of the grand total and the Google-selected judges' panel for the rest.

Fragmentation risk

Google is trying to strike a difficult balance between the potential anarchy of a truly open source environment, and the closed platform of Windows or Apple. It is putting itself in clear control of the Android agenda, while encouraging its own and third party developers to pursue their own projects, and open sourcing all the results.

Although some open source purists complain at the level of control the search giant exerts, and its sometimes poor communication with developers, it knows that an over-open approach could lead to fragmentation, the problem that has held back both Java and Linux on mobile devices.

Rubin acknowledged the danger of losing the advantage of a unified developer platform with the resulting huge target market for apps, as IMS Research analyst Chris Schreck highlighted the issue in a research note. Schreck says fragmentation resulting from the proliferation of devices will become a problem for the whole Android ecosystem, including developers, mobile operators and manufacturers – in fact, anyone developing custom user interfaces or proprietary software for the open source platform.

This will be a key feature of the platform, since operators and vendors want to differentiate and brand themselves with their own user experience, and see Android as a flexible platform to support this. The Open Handset Alliance, the alliance of companies supporting Android, will license one particular form of Android to each OEM or cellco, which in turn will split into multiple incompatible strains on the platform itself, Schreck said. That would increase support costs, reduce economies of scale and force developers to tweak apps for different variants.

“The idea of open source is to spread the cost of platform maintenance and evolution across the entire open source community and all the participants in the OHA, rather than having specific OEMS and MNOs having to bear the cost of making their own version of the platform entirely themselves,” Schreck told Telephony.

Other open source OSs like Symbian and LiMo have license conditions that require any changes to the code to be contributed back to the managing group, though this can slow down development and some companies will be unwilling to share their intellectual property. Rubin indicated that it was in the interests of operators and vendors to ensure fragmentation did not occur, though the creation of Android-based platforms by the likes of China Mobile suggests it may have to take a harder line in future.

Copyright © 2009, Wireless Watch

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