Google’s Android mobile phone platform has started to see the light of day. A handful of handset makers have been showing prototype mobile phones running Android at the GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications) Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, Spain, this week.
Android is heavily backed by Google, though it’s actually being developed and pushed by the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), which is made up of nearly three dozen industry players. Those include T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm, Sprint Nextel, Texas Instruments and Motorola.
The goal behind Android is to develop open standards on mobile devices, which would in turn foster innovation and open up the ecosystem to deliver far richer mobile software experiences for consumers. It’s intended to open up the platform to alliance members as well as to third-party developers.
ARM has reportedly shown a prototype phone using one of its processors. Another prototype comes courtesy of Texas Instruments, as well as a rough prototype from Qualcomm.
The Android-based phones, however, are very much prototypes in every sense of the word. They lack polish and the look and feel of completed products, showing functionality but lots of missing pieces, such as a lack of labels for applications.
“We are in the early stages of testing Android and as yet there is a lot still missing form the platform itself,” Tony Rizzo, mobile software director for The 451 Group, told TechNewsWorld.
“Obviously, HTC has made a lot of noise regarding Android, but the rest of the players here are quietly scoping it out in a very noncommittal way. However, mobile Linux platform vendor a la Mobile has already built a set of applications using the early SDK (software developer kit) that demonstrates two things,” he added. “One, it is strictly a development platform — not an entire ecosystem. And two, although still in the early SDK stages, experienced developers — such as the high-end engineers at a la Mobile — can indeed put it to use.”
“Android is essentially a custom JVM (Java virtual machine) implementation running on top of a Linux kernel, so it involves technologies that are well known to manufacturers and developers alike,” Stephen O’Grady, an industry analyst for RedMonk, told TechNewsWorld.
“More important than the technology, however, is the timing,” he added. “For the first time in years, major carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have shown a willingness to cope with such devices running on their network. Traditionally, they’ve intentionally crippled the designs of manufacturers and limited the opportunities for developers.”
“I think the carriers have looked at the success that a handset free of carrier-meddling — the iPhone in this case — and have seen a potential competitive advantage,” O’Grady explained. “If you’re AT&T, in other words, does it make sense to prevent customers from running Android handsets where your competitor Verizon will not?”
Still, questions abound over when and how Android-based phones will become widely available to consumers.
The first phones running Android will likely appear late this summer, the 451 Group’s Rizzo said, but he noted, “There is no gaurantee carriers will let any Android apps on their phones and in their systems in the early stages … and we need to ask how apps will be certified to run cleanly. Will Google undertake to certify them as such? If not, who? And how will all those apps developers — many of whom are individuals, actually — find a means to get their apps out there? Will Google need to duplicate Qualcomm’s BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) and Nokia’s Forum Nokia developer platforms?
“There is a lot that is incomplete at this point on all of these issues,” Rizzo added.