/ 12 February 2008

Google’s Android debuts in Barcelona

The first cellphones fitted with Google’s Android software platform made their debut at an industry trade show on Monday, a milestone for the internet giant as it looks to dominate the wireless world.

A handful of chip makers — ARM, Marvell, Qualcomm, NEC, Texas Instruments and ST Microelectronics — showed off prototype handsets at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Google launched Android last year, hoping to establish its software as the standard operating system for cellphones and to improve the quality of web browsing for handset users.

“It’s definitely very promising,” an analyst for technology research firm Gartner, Carolina Milanesi, said. “This means that we should be on track to see commercial devices in the second half of 2008.”

The idea is that Android will lead to radically improved functionality, notably for web browsing, meaning more people will use their cellphones for internet surfing and other applications.

Internet use on cellphones can currently be a frustrating experience, with clunky software and slow download speeds.

“There are few phones that provide a compelling web experience,” explained a spokesperson for Google, Barry Schnitt. “As people use the web more, they’ll use Google more and we’ll be able to sell more relevant advertising.”

Android is being developed by a coalition of 30 handset manufacturers, chip makers and software groups and is based on open-source code, meaning programmers are able to build compatible applications for free.

“The future ability of Android is exciting because it’s open source, so it allows developers to come up with the next killer application,” said a spokesperson for United States chip maker Texas Instruments, which demonstrated Android software in a prototype phone.

The Apple iPhone, for example, runs on Apple software and uses Apple applications, while an Android-enabled phone would incorporate applications from any number of developers.

But Google software faces fierce competition from the world’s biggest cellphone maker, Nokia, and its Symbian system. US software giant Microsoft also has a Windows system for mobiles and a separate consortium is working on an open-source Linux solution.

Android was on display for the first time in only prototype phones. The first handset for consumers from either Taiwan’s HTC or US group Motorola is expected in the second half of this year.

Google announced the “Open Handset Alliance” in November last year to develop Android, including China Mobile, HTC, Intel, Motorola, Qualcomm, T-Mobile, Telefonica, LG and eBay.

Gartner’s Milanesi stressed that “the road between a prototype and commercial handset is a long one” and said the ultimate test of Android’s success would be how easily applications could be used. “It should have everything that we see on the PC, not just shrunk down to work on a mobile phone, but really being optimised for a mobile phone,” she said.

The interest in a new software platform from Google also stems from the company’s desire to establish its brand in emerging markets. “If you look at emerging markets, people are more likely to have their first browsing experience on a phone, not a PC,” said Milanesi.

Google surprised analysts when it unveiled Android last November. They had expected the internet giant to announce the launch of its own Google-branded G-phone to compete against Apple’s popular iPhone.

“Imagine not just a single Google phone, or G-phone, but thousands of G-phones made by a variety of manufacturers,” said Google chief executive Eric Schmidt at the time.

This could be Android’s weak spot, however.

HTC and ailing US manufacturer Motorola, which has announced it might break up its businesses, are the two main handset manufacturers in the Open Handset Alliance.

“For it to become a worldwide platform and drive uptake, they need more manufacturers onboard,” said Milanesi. — AFP