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The New Faces of Android

Several new devices will test the appeal of Google’s mobile platform.

A wave of new devices powered by Google’s Android platform look set to test the flexibility and appeal of the software.

New faces: Motorola’s CLIQ smartphone uses the Android platform as the foundation for an interface that integrates social media.

Within the last week, LG, Motorola, and INQ Mobile all announced Android phones, which will join offerings from Samsung and HTC. Few details have been released about INQ’s and LG’s phones, but Motorola’s device, known in the United States as the CLIQ, boasts an interface designed specifically for accessing social media.

The CLIQ’s interface organizes information on the phone into “streams,” weaving data from the phone’s address book with information posted on social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Users can respond to messages through a number of social channels without having to log in or out of accounts or switch applications.

Experts say that the new devices could give more clues about how manufacturers plan to use Android software. Ian Fogg, a principal analyst at Forrester Research who specializes in mobile technology, says that companies are taking one of two approaches to Android. Either they’re using it to ship a broadly standard device that features integration with Google services as a main selling point, or they’re using the platform to create devices, such as the CLIQ, with unique software designed to stand out in the marketplace.

Whichever approach a company takes, Fogg says Android offers some key advantages. Handset manufacturers “can get a leg up, a quicker start, because they’re using Android as a base, they can still differentiate with software, and they get the advantage of having compatibility with all the applications out in the Android marketplace.”

But though using Android as a foundation is quicker than building a mobile operating system from scratch, Kevin Burden, head of ABI Research’s mobile-devices group, points out that it takes a lot of work for a device manufacturer to develop the Android framework enough to release a phone. This explains in part why it took some time for other devices to join HTC’s early offering, the G1, which was released last year.

The flip side of this coin, according to Burden, is that device manufacturers can do a lot to customize the software features and define the phone’s look and feel for themselves. In the past, software such as Windows Mobile and Symbian has been less flexible. Android offers the chance to build very customized software, Burden notes, as Motorola has done with the CLIQ.

Andy Catonguay, director of mobile devices for Yankee Group, sees Motorola’s new phone as part of a trend toward reimagining how users can interact with a device. “In most devices, if I want to talk to you, I have to think about what application to get at in order to access your information and complete that contact,” he says. Calls, IMs, and e-mails all require different applications. With the CLIQ and a few other high-end phones, the design tries to group actions around people, letting the mechanics of making contact flow from there.

Catonguay adds that the Android platform is a good choice for this approach because, unlike some competitors, it’s not built around sets of menus. Android’s more visual user interface lends itself to the CLIQ’s organizational approach, and the platform’s flexibility makes it easy for individual users to make adjustments.

Chetan Sharma, an analyst who runs his own consulting firm in Issaquah, WA, says that the true test of Android will come when people start using a variety of devices to download applications from Android Market. The mobile industry tried previously, with the Java platform, to make it possible for developers’ applications to run on lots of different devices without tweaking. But Sharma points out that the goal was never fully realized, and the platform gradually became fragmented.

The big promise of Android is that manufacturers can build new types of phones and launch them with a thriving ecosystem of applications already in place, thanks to Android Market. Sharma says whether this is true will become clear when people take applications built for early models such as HTC’s G1 and start installing them on other manufacturers’ phones.

Sharma adds that Android has lagged in developing an effective billing system for applications purchased through the market. So far the system has been nowhere near as smooth as what Apple has in place with its iTunes store. Sharma says that improving Android Market is critical, so that customers get full access to the applications that are a major selling point for any mobile platform.

But not everyone agrees that Android devices will need to remain fully compatible with each other to be successful. ABI Research’s Burden thinks manufacturers like the leeway they have with the Android platform to make a phone truly their own. As for Google, Burden expects the company to eventually try to make money off the platform, perhaps through advertising technology, once Android-based devices have been widely adopted.

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