Google's Android invasion

Forget the iPhone – Google is on a mission to take over the mobile world. Its innovative operating system is powering a raft of new phones and, one day soon, all handsets could run on it. Jack Riley investigates

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The Independent Tech

With four billion handsets in the world – more than twice the number of internet users, and two and half a billion more than the number of televisions – it's safe to describe the mobile phone as the most successful technology of our generation. But what's the next step for mobile communication? If Google has its way, the future is Android – and the next few months are going to be crucial to its success.

Android, in case the news has passed you by, is billed as the mobile phone operating system that will change the way we use mobiles. Where traditionally, phones have all worked differently, with usability ranging from the passable to the infuriating, Android's mission is to simplify, partially by devising a more intuitive interface, and also by making it so widely available that it becomes a standard. "Combining the simplicity of Android software with its imminent availability on a range of mass-market phones from various manufacturers, and the trend in developing countries to go 'straight to mobile', makes Android an exciting global platform for the next few years," says Richard Warmsley, head of internet and entertainment of T-Mobile.

From Android's humble beginnings as a two-person company in Palo Alto, California, through being bought up by Google in 2005, it has grown into the flagship operation of a group of 48 companies known as the Open Handset Alliance. Featuring such heavyweights of the tech world as LG, Toshiba and Samsung, its aim is to "enrich the lives of countless people across the globe" by improving mobile experiences.

What really differentiates it from its competitors is that it is built on the Linux operating system beloved of geeks worldwide, and almost entirely distributed "open source", meaning anyone with the relevant technological know-how can contribute to its development by suggesting and creating improvements. "Given how complicated phones are getting and how hard and expensive software is to write, there seems little reason to persevere on a customised solution when you can just use one customers already know and like," says Stephen Charman, an Android developer. The handset manufacturer Motorola is so confident the future is Android it's reportedly retired its team of 77 engineers who were working on the company's own operating system, and is now hiring software engineers familiar with Google's free alternative. Such is its potential that Android has been mooted as the software of the future for netbooks and set-top boxes as well as phones.

With any discussion of mobile phones, the elephant in the room is always going to be Apple's iPhone, which has been a huge critical and commercial success. Android phones and the iPhone might appear to be in direct competition; they are both high-spec, and similarly priced. But Al Sutton, a UK-based Android developer, thinks the situation may develop along similar lines to the home computing market: "I can see the iPhone and Android co-existing in the future in a similar way that Macs and Windows PCs do at the moment", he says. "Apple is focused on being a premium brand, whereas Android's focus is ubiquity."

Although Android phones are only rarely to be spotted in the wild in Britain right now, the groundswell of support for the system from manufacturers may well see a number of devices launched at once in the coming year. "We are not facing a shortage of offers powered by Android," claims Peter Becker-Pennrich, director of terminals marketing for Vodafone, on the brand's future product line-up. T-Mobile is similarly enamoured: "The open nature of Android, the innovation and choice it bring, mean that it will establish itself as one of the most important mobile platforms of the next few years", agrees Richard Warmsley.

Next month will see the release of the G2 Touch from T-Mobile and the Hero from Orange, both versions of a new touchscreen handset from HTC, which features a hefty five-megapixel camera with video functionality, GPS and, of course, full integration with Google products like Gmail, Google Talk and YouTube.

Even though they have much in common, the philosophy of the iPhone and the Android phones about to hit the market could hardly differ more. The iPhone is, in a sense, a dictatorship – the applications which make it what it is are all vetted by Apple's often draconian censors, and those that are made live must pay a hefty price for their inclusion in the App Store.

In contrast, phones running on Android have access to a market for applications which are posted directly by their developers, the majority of which are free, and, of those you do have pay for, the profits go straight to the developers. While some developers are unhappy about shortcomings like the lack of an adequate online interface, Google insists problems will be ironed out in time.

"The evolution of Android is fairly rapid," says Anthony House, a spokesperson for Google, noting that, as well as new hardware, the Android software itself is due two more updates before the year is out. The first, entitled Cupcake, was released just months after the initial roll-out of Android on the G1, and saw the addition of video-recording capabilities, as well as a touch-screen keyboard.

With open-source code available to be played with by developers globally, House is keen to highlight the international contributions to Android's thriving Market, the equivalent of Apple's App Store. "One of the coolest apps currently available is Wikitude (an "augmented reality" application for finding local attractions), built in Austria, and another is Cab4me (directing calls to whatever cab company is closest), built in Germany. It isn't just Silicon Valley that is the centre of innovation – people are building cool things all over the world, and then some people are just building things for a local market."

This global focus is part of what makes Android in tune with the technological zeitgeist. It is open-source, non-proprietary, cross-platform, and, focussing on mutual success over the exclusive technologies of the iPhone, and with the mighty Google in its corner, few would bet against this robot army taking over the world.

In pictures: Phone wars - The Android handsets

Read more on Android from Jack Riley

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