When T-Mobile started selling the G1 handset last October in the US and UK, expectations were high. It was the first smartphone to run Google's Android operating system, which was widely heralded as having the potential to provide stiff competion for Apple's iPhone.
Has it? Not yet, but as the year has gone on, there have been more signs that Android is picking up traction with handset makers, operators and application developers.
As we approach its first birthday, it looks set to become an important platform for mobile entertainment firms and the wider mobile industry.
Or, as Google CEO Eric Schmidt put it in its Q3 financials conference call: “Android adoption is literally about to explode. You have all the necessary conditions. You have the vendors, you have the distribution, and so forth.”
The key to the optimism around Android right now is handsets. It was a slow start, with the G1 quickly selling a million units, but precious few handsets following in its wake. Mobile World Congress this year – predicted to be an Android-fest – yielded only one significant new Android phone, HTC's Magic.
However, that too went on to sell a million units in just four months, thanks to a deal with Vodafone. Since then, the pace of new handset announcements has picked up. There are now 12 Android phones available through 32 operators in 26 countries, with more already announced.
They include HTC’s Hero and Tattoo, LG’s GW620 and Acer’s Liquid smartphone. Meanwhile, Motorola is hoping its Dext handset will help it make a comeback, while social handset maker INQ has confirmed that its first Android phone will go on sale in 2010.
Earlier this year, analyst Strategy Analytics predicted that eight million Android handsets will ship by the end of 2009 – an estimate that could prove conservative given Google's own claim that 18-20 new Android phones will have been announced by then.
There was even a rumour this summer that Nokia was preparing to unveil its first Android handset, although this has turned out (so far) to be untrue.
Don't forget that Android can be used for other devices too. Acer is one of the companies putting it in netbooks, while Archos recently showed off its Archos 5 Internet tablet, which runs Android and comes with its own dedicated AppsLib app store.
There is even an Android-powered handheld gaming device, Hardkernal's ODROID, which is looking to take on PSP and DS.
One of the reasons handset makers like Android is the way they can customise it by layering their own user interfaces on top.
Motorola's MOTOBLUR, which will debut in the Dext, is a good example. It syncs people's contacts, posts, messages and photos from social networking sites including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Gmail and Last.fm, delivering them to the homescreen of the phone. It's an Android handset, but MOTOBLUR is all Motorola.
HTC has also rolled out its own souped-up Android UI, called Sense. Available on the Hero (with the Tattoo to follow), it includes widgets, 'scenes' to offer different homescreens based on the time of day, more social network aggregation, and a visually arresting 'perspectives' content interface.
Meanwhile, Sony Ericsson has shown off its own beautiful Android UI, codenamed Rachael. This ability to customise Android shouldn't be underestimated – it lets handset makers take advantage of Google's smartphone OS while retaining some control over the user experience.
However, it's also true to say Android isn't the only smartphone OS that's capable of this - HTC is taking Sense to Windows Mobile too.
In time, operators may also launch their own customised Android handsets too. Verizon Wireless announced a major partnership with Google this month to start selling Android phones, although Vodafone opted for Linux for its new Vodafone 360 initiative, which seemed tailor-made for the Android treatment.
There is excitement around Android phones, but what about its App Store. Here, Google has faced more criticism, particularly from developers.
The topline stats released by Google look good enough: 10,000 apps are now available on the store, with users having downloaded an average of 40 apps to their handsets. 80% of Android users download at least one app per week.
However, there are problems, summarised neatly by AdMob's estimate that Android Market is only generating $5 million of paid app sales a month, compared to iPhone's App Store's $200 million.
Free apps are doing very well on Android, but paid apps are not. Puzzle game Trism, for example, famously made $250,000 in two months on iPhone for its developer, but has sold less than 500 copies on Android, meaning a paltry return of $1,500.
It's partly down to billing, as unlike Apple, Google doesn't get credit-card details from every user when they activate their handset. In the additional absence of operator billing, Android Market requires users to pay via the Google Checkout system instead.
Meanwhile, developers complain that their paid apps are swamped by freebies, and that the way their apps are presented doesn't give users enough information to make a buying decision.
Some even darkly suggest that by its nature, Google doesn't care much about paid content. However, the company has moved to head off this criticism recently unveiling improvements to the next version of Android Market, including separating out paid and free apps, and letting developers provide screenshots, icons and longer descriptions for their apps.
Courting developers will be important to Android’s future success. Only this week, the Mobile Monday event in London saw location platform firms suggesting LBS developers were switching from Android to iPhone in the hope of making money faster.
Despite the problems, there is an increasing groundswell of support for Android from mobile entertainment firms.
Games publishers are porting their iPhone games, while music service Spotify launched its Android app the same day as iPhone, complete with the extra feature of being able to run in the background. Android has also seen innovation in areas still new to iPhone, such as its thriving cluster of augmented reality apps.
Android hasn't helped handset firms and operators knock iPhone off its perch, then, but providing a headache for Symbian and Windows Mobile is a decent enough achievement.
Gartner has already predicted that by 2012 Android will be the second largest smartphone platform, selling 76 million handsets a year and taking a market share of 14.5%.
Based on the evidence so far, Android's future is ripe with potential.
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