There's a company that makes software for mobile devices: smartphones and what we'll call "pocket computers" (nay, Pocket PCs). This company doesn't make an ounce of their own hardware, but their software runs on many another company's devices, and some of those devices are even branded with the software maker's logo. There are a few different versions of this company's OS floating around, which can get a little confusing for consumers, and the confusion is heightened by the fact that some of those hardware companies I mentioned are customizing the core OS with user interface enhancements and custom applications that come pre-installed on their devices.
What company and mobile OS am I talking about? Microsoft and Windows Mobile? Google and Android? Yes and yes ... sorta. I'm talking Android here - but the parallels between Microsoft, Google, and their mobile platforms are striking. Especially if you compare WinMo from five or so years ago - and Pocket PC before it - to Android as it transitions from version 1.x to the first 2.0 devices.
Google incubated the first commercial release of Android on the smallest of the US' Big Four wireless carriers, getting OS 1.0 and the G1 handset into the paws of developers and early adopters while they set the stage for sleeker devices pre-installed with customized and augmented versions of Android better equipped to grab consumer mindshare in advertisements and retail outlets. By the time HTC's Hero and, several months later, Motorola's CLIQ hit the scene with their companies' customized suites of apps and widgets, big-time consumer electronics players like Acer, Dell, Samsung and Sony Ericsson had started to leak/hint/preview customized Android wares of their own. Not long after that, the full-on age of Android for Mainstream Consumers hit with Verizon's first Android phone, the Motorola Droid. Droid launched behind the brute force of a massive print/digital/TV ad campaign built around ads that, while oddly confusing and borderline frightening (or comical, depending on your perspective), took AT&T and its market-leading Apple iPhone to task for their various shortcomings. Much as I hate the term, Droid really was the first mobile phone positioned by its backers as "The iPhone Killer."
A year or so after the first release of Android hit the InterWebs, we're on the cusp of 2010 which, by all accounts, should be the Year of The Droid. The US market is awash in a recent wave of carrier-subsidized Android devices in a variety of form factors and levels of OS customization, and Motorola has already brought itself back to legitimacy in the high-end smartphone market on the strength of its first two Android OS devices, Droid and CLIQ (T-Mobile). Sony Ericsson may be the next falling giant to ride the Android rebound wave with its first Google OS phone, the X10, which has been turning heads with its customized UI and is set to ship in the first quarter of 2010.
All of this built on a platform that, frankly, isn't very consumer-friendly. Imagine what'll happen when version 2.x, with its industry-shaking turn-by-turn navigation app, gets some spit and polish and starts shipping as standard fare on all Android handsets? Imagine what'll happen when more and more handset makers and wireless carriers hop on the Android bandwagon and start offering their own tweaks and customizations in a variety of form factors and at a variety of price points?
Actually, it could get kind of ugly ... for everyone except Google, that is. The history of Windows Mobile - and the recent history of Android - is not without its darker days. Any operating system developed by a software company, adopted by myriad hardware companies, and distributed by even more network operators is bound to see its fair share of inconsistencies and hiccups. Already we've got customers confused over which version of the OS their new smartphone came with, and wondering if and when they'll be able to upgrade to Two-Dot-Something and that neato nav app their Droid-toting friends keep crowing about. Early adopters worry their G1s are already obsolete thanks to upgrade requirements, and HTC fans aren't sure if they're to get their Sense-compatible updates from their mobile carriers or from HTC direct.
Let confusion reign supreme, eh?
And then there's the mythical "Google Phone," currently making the rumor mill rounds in its latest form, the HTC Passion (aka Dragon). Despite the fact that almost all of the latest Android handsets are "Google Experience" devices, and branded as such via a "with Google" tattoo on the battery cover, techies can't ourselves itself when it comes to the mind-blowing thought that Google might just be prepping the Real Google Phone. As of now, we've all got ourselves worked up about a possible HTC-made, Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered full-touch device launching on either T-Mobile or Verizon (depending on which blogs you read) in early 2010.
Some folks even think Google is going to back the Passion with some sort of revolutionary voice/data offering that will shake the wireless industry up for good. A Google-operated MVNO? A Google Voice device that relies on VOIP for voice calling and so requires a data-only plan, freeing the customer from having to pay for old fashioned voice minutes? Only Larry and Sergy likely know for sure, though a few trusted tipsters have perked my ears up as of late with Android-related comments like, "2010 will be a revolutionary year for the wireless industry."
Oh, but there's more! Android was never intended only for smartphones. Here come the tablets! Whether or not that other mythical beast, the Apple Tablet, is actually slated for a 2010 unveiling, the tech media is convinced that everyone from Asus to Dell to FusionCrunchGaragePad is hard at work on a tablet computer because, well, the time is finally nigh for a sexy, affordable, touchscreen Web browsing device for geeked out couch potatoes and their on-the-go, media-consuming brethren. And wouldn't Android just be the bee's knees when it comes to an operating system made to multitask, browse the Web, and interface with cloud services that, oh by the way, won't cost hardware makers much in the way of R&D or licensing fees?
Oh, but wait! Then there's the whole Chrome OS thing that Google just previewed. On the one hand Chrome is its own OS, meant for the netbook segment more than the smartphone/tablet segment. On the other hand, didn't Google themselves say that eventually Android and Chrome will one day kinda-sorta-most likely merge into one all-powerful beast?
Hmm ... Smartphones, tablets, and netbooks ... Android and Chrome ... Kinda reminds you of Windows CE, PocketPC, and Windows Mobile, no?
The thing that Google has going for it as it wades through the tangle of bringing multiple versions of its mobile OS(es) to multiple devices in multiple markets is that smartphone software is not the company's cash cow. Just as Microsoft was still primarily in the desktop OS/software biz during WinMo's heyday, Google makes money when people use the Web, and isn't reliant on whether or not those Web surfers are using an Android device to get online. Don't get me wrong, mobile is getting bigger every day, and it's not like Android and Chrome are risk-free passion projects for Google. But Google can afford to make minor messes in mobile for the time being while they work out the kinks of a massively distributed, rather fractured deployment plan for Android (and possibly Chrome).
Unlike Palm, as I wrote about yesterday, Google doesn't have to worry about getting Android into consumers' hands in a now-or-never, do-or-die way. Between the Google brand and the low, low cost of shipping your company's devices with Android installed, everyone from consumers to carriers to handset makers wants in on the action. Since more Android devices means more registered Google Accounts and GMail/Maps/Docs users means more chances for Larry and Sergy to monetize your online traffic, Google's more than happy to oblige everyone with a chance to build themselves a Droid or two.
I've tried most of the Android devices currently on the market, and I like quite a few of them (HTC Droid Eris, anyone?). But I'm not yet a convert. Palm's WebOS is, to me, the best mobile operating system currently available, despite its shortcomings (which, again, I wrote about yesterday ... *cough* shameless plug *cough*). And Apple's iPhone 3GS is still the mobile device that best fits my needs, now that my love affair with the HTC HD2's hardware has fizzled out amidst the cold, hard reality of life run by WinMo 6.5. But it's impossible to deny that Android is a solid, modern mobile OS with a ton going for it on both the technology and business sides of the equation.
Without HTC-style enhancements, Android 1.x isn't ready for mainstream consumers, and I'm inclined to say that 2.0 isn't really, either. Before you get all upset, DroidDogs, remember that by virtue of reading this you've more or less taken yourselves out of the "mainstream consumer" category. I didn't say Android isn't a stellar, totally usable, massively customizable OS. I said I still think it needs some softening and refining around the edges before millions of first-time smartphone buyers take to it like they have iPhone's dead-simple user experience. I recently lent Android devices to two very different friends considering their first smartphone purchases. After testing Droid and a few others out, one friend went with iPhone and the other decided to stick with his RAZR V3 for awhile longer. Why? Android was too geeky for their tastes, plain and simple.
Hopefully Android will get there this year with versions 2.5 and beyond underlying many a manufacturer's Sense and Blur-esque customizations. But even if Android remains more geek's playground than consumer beacon throughout 2010, there's no denying the sheer, massive power behind a Google operating system. While Android and Chrome do harken back to the days of PocketPC and WinMo 2003, when you throw Google Voice, Nav, Docs, and Search in there (to name only a few of Google's Services), you've got yourself a cloud-based juggernaut that should stop at nothing less than a major chunk of the world's mobile marketplace.