Android (Google's open source mobile operating system) is getting more and more press recently, and for good reason. The software is running on a variety of different phones and handheld devices now, and there are many more set to launch in the next few months. Android is gaining in popularity quickly.
When it comes right down to it, I love my Android phone. It natively integrates with Gmail, Google Calendar & Maps… it has my Reader account as my homepage… it even has coloring apps to entertain the kids in the doctors office. It's easy to type on and it literally sleeps on my bedside table.
I'm also virtually the only person I know that has an Android phone, and it's been (officially) available in Canada for about 6 months. So to make sure we're all on the same page, let's start with a quick overview of how an Android phone is different from an iPhone.
iPhone vs. Android
First – and most importantly – the iPhone is obviously only available from one manufacturer – Apple. All the iPhones out there run on essentially the same hardware. Also important is the fact that an out-of-the-box (ie unjailbroken) iPhone is only allowed to download apps from the official iPhone App Store. You can jailbreak the phone, and this allows you to download apps from other places, but it's fair to say that your average non-tech user isn't likely to be hacking their iPhone. Jailbreaking an iPhone is also not without its risks.
Android on the other hand, is not tied to any specific hardware. Because it's an open source OS, it can run on many devices, and it's running on lots of them. In fact, ComScore reports that Android is already catching up to iPhones in the mobile market.
An Android device is also able to download apps from outside the Android Market without having to hack the OS (you don't jailbreak an Android phone – you root it, which is an entirely different thing, and you don't need to root the phone to download apps). That means that even your average non-tech user is able to download apps from outside the official Google Market relatively easily. I'm not saying they will, I'm just pointing out that they can.
Rise of the App Store Wars
The very fact that you can so easily get apps for Android without messing around with the OS means that there have already been Android App sites set up where you can get apps outside the official Market. MobiHand, FastApp and phoload are just 3 early examples of sites where you can get Android apps.
Or, do you know that Android is going to be big when it has its very own adult app store?
It's estimated that the Android Marketplace has around 20,000 apps available right now. This is a strong start, although still far less than the more than 115,000 apps the iPhone app store has.
When manufacturers, carriers, developers and hobbyists are setting up app stores left, right and centre, the playing field could be very interesting in the next 3-4 years. Developers whose apps have been rejected from the iPhone store can find a healthy number of distribution channels by porting over to Android.
It's an ongoing feeling here in Canada that the great white north is seen as the poor cousin of the US, the UK, and most of the world in general in the eyes of the tech world. It's been a personal pet peeve of mine for years that Google services available to the rest of the world are not available in Canada, at least not until years after they launch.
According to AndroLib.com which tracks Android apps, just over 40% of apps in the official Android Market are paid. This means that Android users located where paid apps are not available are shut out from accessing almost half of the available apps.
But don't despair – there are other ways of getting paid apps, and the solution goes back to all those different app stores. Canadians may not be able to get paid apps from the Android Market, but the non-Google stores are more than happy to take your money. MobiHand for example, confirmed with us that Canadian Android users are more than welcome to purchase paid apps from their store.
Android Platform Fragmentation
A more serious and imminent issue than paid apps however is the fragmentation of the operating system itself across different devices. Remember that Android is an open source OS. This means that hardware manufacturers, carriers, or anyone else with the desire can create their own flavor of Android.
Further to this is the fact that there are different versions of the basic operating system itself. Earlier devices can be running Android 1.1, while the newest devices and updates are running 2.0. Meanwhile, version 2.0 is already obsolete as of early December when 2.0.1 was released, and developers are not being asked to support it.
In fact, based on tracking the devices accessing Android Market, as of this writing, over 80% of Android users are running either Android 1.5 or 1.6. However, this could fragment further as people slowly upgrade to 2.0+ and whatever newer versions are released.
The OS version is important, as applications need to be compatible with the OS version to run. People running older versions of Android don't have access to newer features like Google Maps Navigation or Google Goggles. Since Google Maps Navigation only runs on version 2.0 and above, over 80% of current Android users can't access it.
Some Android owners may not be able to update their phones, either. Existing Canadian Android users are very upset that updates will not be available for their phones stuck running the older 1.5 version. Many people who bought Android devices were not aware that updates must be provided by the carrier. While new carriers in the market may keep their devices more up to date, the situation just illustrates the critical problem with Android – the OS is not under the control of any single party, so its implementation is subject to the whims of whoever is holding the biggest handful of strings.
Light Ahead in the Tunnel
All of this may be the reason that Google will be releasing it's Nexus One "official Google phone" unlocked. If the phone becomes independent of the carrier, then compatibility issues become less of a problem, since updates come directly from Google itself, without having to overcome inertia from the carriers. That is, assuming that enough people want to buy the phone, and once Google clears up that pesky lawsuit about the name.
There's talk that Fennec could kill the whole concept of the app store. Is this possible? It's too early to tell, but take a second to remember what happened to Microsoft when browsers began to be used as the platform instead of the OS. Can a mobile version of Chrome really be that far off?
Either way, the mobile space is getting more competitive, and it will be fascinating to see if Android can make a serious dent in Apple's mobile market share.