Android 2.2 (a.k.a. Froyo) has arrived and it’s looking a lot like an equalizer in the battle of the smartphone platforms. Everyone seemed to expect an iPhone competitor to come in one neat little smartphone, but perhaps the real iPhone competitor comes when the Trojan horse of Android is opened, and all the LG, HTC, Motorola and Samsung devices come rushing onto the scene.
Fragmentation aside, Google and Android users have a lot to be happy about right now. Seemingly overnight, this latest version of the OS adds all of the following to its list of features: Flash support, tethering, Wi-Fi hot spot functionality, a huge boost in speed across the board and a bunch of new enterprise enhancements. Take all of that and stir in a host of top-notch hardware selections from the biggest OEMs that don’t have Steve Jobs as their CEO (i.e. HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung) and you’ve got the makings of a bonafide iPhone challenger.
If you’ve dismissed Android up until now, yesterday just might give you pause for reconsideration.
A Game of Leap Frog
Kevin Burden, vice president and practice director of mobile devices, says that yesterday’s announcement is part of an endless back-and-forth between smartphone OEMs, but he admits that Android has made great strides recently.
“It’s true. We’re getting to a point where we have an operating system that is starting to match iPhone in the way a smartphone is supposed to look and act, and it’s taken a long time to get there,” he says, adding that one of the strongest aspects of Android – and the one that will help it proliferate in the future – is that anyone can license it.
Burden says that adding features is all about creating a differentiation that draws in consumers and there simply is no end game. “I think everyone is starting to realize that we don’t know we need any particular feature until we’re told we need it. It wasn’t that long ago, maybe 2006, that people just wanted to be able to make a phone call,” he says.
As far as expanding to another carrier in the United States, Burden says Apple can stay where it is if it so chooses. “Their growth is not just in this country. Their growth comes in basically getting the iPhone into as many operators around the world as possible… Will they get to the point where they say they want to expand in the U.S.? Probably so, but I don’t really think it’s critical for them. Whatever deal they have with AT&T obviously is a very lucrative one,” he says.
When asked whether Android’s latest successes put the screws to Apple to move to more carriers in the United States or to commit the heresy of licensing, Burden is hesitant. “The fact is still true that the most successful platforms out there are all closed systems,” he says, noting BlackBerry and Apple. “It’s about control, when you control a lot, you control the entire experience. Will [Apple] get to a point where they have to license? It goes against every fiber of Apple’s makeup.”
Burden notes that Apple began and sustained a zero growth business model in its early days, essentially surviving by selling high-end products to its established and very loyal customer base.
The HTC Evo 4G from Sprint has emerged as the premier Android device on the market. It’s no accident that the Evo was the device Google chose to gift its audience of developers at the annual I/O conference this year.
Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis, says the HTC Evo really is the best Android device out there. But he says that the real genius of the Evo is the plain-and-simple marketing job Sprint has used to showcase the phone.
Greengart says that by highlighting things like Wi-Fi hot spot functionality and HD YouTube in advertisements and promotional materials, Sprint has done a good job of appealing to the bulk of consumers as opposed to the serious technophiles, which until recently have comprised Android’s core customer base.
When asked whether there are any glaring omissions from Android’s current choice of hardware, Greengart says that hardware has reached a point where it’s just not as much of differentiator as it once was. “The question itself is just not as relevant as it would have been, say, even a year ago,” he says, noting that while high-tech specs might differentiate one OEM from another, those differences no longer show up at a platform level, where consumers might take notice.
Far from noting any glaring omissions in the Android hardware department, Greengart says that he especially likes that the Evo has a built-in kickstand, a feature sorely lacking from other platforms.
Android Gaining Ground
According to Gartner, Android has just taken the No. 4 position in the worldwide smartphone OS market, displacing Microsoft Windows Mobile for the first time. Yesterday, at the unveiling of Froyo, Google said it is activating 100,000 Android devices a month, up from around 60,000 just this past February.
It’s anybody’s guess where market share shakes down in a year or two. However, given that Android has perhaps the first proven competitor to the iPhone, it’s probably not too much of a long shot to say that Google, along with a handful of OEMs, have established a pretty good alternative to Apple’s once untouchable smartphone.