The first phone featuring Google's much-anticipated mobile operating system, Android, has been released. We take a closer look at the impact it is likely to have.
So, the cat is finally out of the bag. Google's Android operating system has seen the light of day, courtesy the G1 mobile phone. As is usual with a new product, the device has had its supporters and detractors, but what no one can deny is that what attracted more attention than the phone was the OS running on it, a bit of a rarity in cell phone circles, where hardware generally tends to rule the roost. But then the G1 represented Google's first major foray into cell phone territory. The company had been making software (such as the Gmail app and Google Maps) for mobiles for a while now, but Android takesGoogle's involvement in cell phones to a whole new level. Android is not an ordinary application, it is, in fact, an entire platform on which other software can run. Which puts the search behemoth right alongside the likes of Nokia, Microsoft, RIM, Palm, Motorola and Apple, companies that develop operating systems for mobile phones.
A new, open interface
Judging by what one has seen so far, Android seems to be an OS that works just as well with a touchscreen as with a keypad, just like Symbian UIQ and Windows Mobile 6 (Professional). It features large icons that seemed designed to respond to one's fingers rather than a stylus, a la the iPhone. Mind you, the G1 came with a slide out QWERTY keypad too and users seemed just as comfortable using it as they were with their fingers. As an OS, Android seems to straddle both multimedia and enterprise segments, coming stacked with applications that range from IMs and e-mail to document viewers and media players. There are some very innovative applications on board too, such as the version of Google Maps that comes with a special view option, allowing you to not just know where you are but also have an idea of how your surroundings will appear if you happen to be standing at that point. And in what seems to be another leaf taken out of the iPhone's book of innovation, users have the option to download more software from the Android Marketplace, an online repository of applications that is expected to grow very fast indeed.
Of course, not everyone is satisfied. Critics have pointed to the absence of a document editor but most observers feel that it is only a matter of time before Google brings that on board too. Another point that has been raised is that a number of apps seem designed specially to support Google services, such as Gmail and Google Talk. Google supporters however point out that third party applications to support other services are likely to appear once the platform gains popularity. More serious are the complaints about the lack of polish in some of the applications (see Steve Ballmer's comment in They Said IT on Page 14) such as the browser and mail client, although most people feel that those will also be addressed in the course of time
Will open source do the trick?
However, a key feature of Android is that it is totally open source. Of course, it is by no means the first open source operating system in the mobile space, but it is certainly the most prominent, coming as it does from Google. Also, unlike other open source efforts in the past that tended to get tied down to a specific manufacturer (Motorola, for instance), Android is likely to be adapted by far more manufacturers. At the time of writing, HTC, Motorola and Sony Ericsson were all believed to be working on handsets that would be running the OS. Although the hardware specifications are likely to vary from handset to handset, observers feel that Android might pave the way for low cost handsets as manufacturers won't have to shell out money for the operating system. There is already talk of a handset with features such as a touchscreen, QWERTY keyboard, 3.2-mega pixel camera and GPS being released in India next year for a price in the region of Rs 15,000, something that no other manufacturer can match at present. Industry observers also feel that Android has the potential to change the dynamics of the lower end of the market, making features like push mail and office suites available even on relatively low-end devices.
What makes most observers bullish about Android is the fact that it is a Google product, which gives it an 'aspirational' feel that previous open source endeavours did not have. It is thought that many consumers might just use Android devices purely because they identify closely with Google and what the company stands for. It might not have made as big a splash as the iPhone but indications are that Android could change the industry just as much as Apple's uber gizmo did. Watch this space for news of further developments.