March 16, 2009 While Apple's iPhone has enjoyed enormous success using a highly controlled, locked-down handset, operating system and application store, Google's touchscreen smartphone platform takes the opposite approach. Android is a completely open-source operating system, meaning that developers can write whatever abilities they want into it - and Google doesn't make or recommend any particular handsets. The HTC Dream (AKA the T-Mobile G1) gave Android a start in the market - but several big-name competitors are working on Android smartphones to be released sometime this year. The battle for Android handset supremacy is about to begin - let's take a look at the challengers.
While Apple has kept things incredibly simple and controlled with the iPhone, Google's Android platform is entirely based around consumer choice - for better or worse. Where the iPhone offers too few options in many cases, Google's OS will dazzle you with choice.
Android is both completely open-source and pretty much handset-independent - so once handset manufacturers start producing serious options, you can expect to see a huge range of different phones available running the Google OS - incorporating different screen sizes, resolutions, keypad options, processors, inbuilt memory options, communications devices, price points and every other imaginable variation.
The HTC Dream, or T-Mobile G1, was rushed to market in October last year as an iPhone alternative, but has failed to ignite interest or capture the public imagination in the way Apple has. Not to worry, plenty of opportunities are coming - Google has an even bigger fan base in the computing world than Apple, and a number of manufacturers are gearing up to release Android handsets in 2009.
Samsung plans to have "at least three" Android phones in its lineup by the end of 2009. The first unit has already been flagged - it should hit the Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile networks in America by June.
LG will dip its toe in the water with an updated version of its KS360 handset tweaked to run Android and scheduled to launch this (American) Summer. The KS360 is a budget handset with a 2-megapixel camera and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.
There's another two Android phones in the works, expected by the end of 2009, so hopefully we'll see what LG can do with a high-performance Android handset before too long.
While HTC's Dream/T-Mobile G1 was the first Android handset to make it to market, it didn't light a lot of fires with consumers. But HTC is planning to capitalize on its 6-odd months of market experience by launching a second Android handset very shortly. The HTC Magic has already been shown in pre-production form, and it's launching very soon in Europe.
The Magic is slick, pretty and it looks fairly fast as well. Unlike the G1, the Magic is a fully touch-screen phone, using a software keyboard. It looks fantastic, and hopefully will be one of the first truly attractive options to pull customers away from the iPhone.
Mobile phones are absolutely going to be the hottest media delivery platform of the next decade or so - so it should be no surprise that graphics hardware specialists NVIDIA are planning to take a bite at the handset cherry.
NVIDIA's Tegra chipset will soon find its way into a consumer-level touchscreen internet device and smartphone - and the platform has already been demonstrated with a hastily slapped-on Android installation. While it's still buggy and in its infancy, the NVIDIA phone's massive graphics handling capability will allow it to play movies in full 1080p HD - and output the signal to a big-screen TV. That's a serious selling point; your phone becomes a portable digital video drive. We can't wait to hear more.
Sony Ericsson caused a rush of speculation when it joined the Open Handset Alliance and committed to build an Android handset at the end of 2008. While it's unlikely that they'll get anything to market by the end of 2009, the potential for a Sony Android phone is very exciting.
The first handset will be a high end product, according to the Unofficial Sony Ericsson Blog, and it will be followed by more affordable mass-market products. The company will continue to make Symbian and Windows Mobile phones as well. We're sure to hear more later this year.
While most of the focus will understandably be on the phone handset market, Android's capabilities will make it a good fit for a number of other applications - some of them very exciting indeed.
Archos is implementing Android on an "Internet Media Tablet" - bigger and more powerful than a phone in every way, with a 5-inch HD touchscreen, digital TV recording and playback, fast processor, 500GB hard drive and a battery capable of 7 hours of video playback. With phones replacing computers in so many areas, perhaps we can expect more of these larger touchscreen devices to come out of the woodwork.
Archos is understood to be charging to market, so we can expect to see this device sometime in 2009. It will be interesting to see if its resolution, big storage and grunt will make up for its size and baffling use of spinning hard drives.
What do you think
In the next 12 months you'll be seeing a cavalcade of new Android phones, running a broad spectrum of capabilities. Some will be hugely powerful, others very affordable.
Will the Android phones combine to take a proper bite out of Apple's market share? Will the techie crowd jump on board when they see a handset that's powerful and sorted enough to raise their eyebrows? And will the mass market follow, now that the iPhone has irreversibly raised their expectations of what a phone can do?
Let us know what you think in the comments below.