It must be hard growing up in the shadow of the iPhone. Such is the case for Android, the platform that many are billing as the next big thing but which has yet to truly grow its open-source roots. There are currently only a handful of Android handsets on the market in the United States. In fact, there’s only four: T-Mobile G1, T-Mobile myTouch 3G, Motorola CLIQ (also T-Mobile), and the HTC Hero on Sprint. So what’s the big deal?
For one thing, the big kids on the block (Palm, Apple, Microsoft, Research In Motion) have made themselves all too hate-able targets, what with their walled gardens, big money and rules, rules, rules. Almost by default, Android, with its rugged individualism and rebellious open-source code, becomes the endearing, democratic workingman’s platform come to whip the powers that be into submission. It’s no accident that the rebel Jesse James is prominently featured in the myTouch 3G TV commercials.
While the casting here is admittedly dramatic, it’s not far from the truth. As Apple incites suspicion and paranoia with its App Store approval process, getting the FCC interested to boot, Android’s Wild West, anything goes attitude invites romantic visions of rebellion. Imagine a James Dean-like carrier showing up in those Mac commercials that makes both Mac and PC look like domesticated dweebs.
Strategy Analytics predicted a 900 percent growth in sales globally for Android in 2009. While current projections have dropped to only 800 percent growth over last year, Alex Spektor, analyst of global wireless practice for Strategy Analytics, says additional handsets will only quicken that rate going into 2010.
“We estimate that the first half of the year about 2 million sold, and we figure another 5 million for the rest of the year. Most of the activity is in either United States or Western Europe because these are the more developed markets globally,” he says.
And while a big part of Android’s astonishing growth rate lies in the fact that the platform is still relatively young, an estimate of 3 million sell-through units in North America alone by the end of 2009 is nothing to shake a stick at.
Image is Everything
Android is currently riding a wave of hype that’s incredibly important in the smartphone market. A recent report from Interpret Research confirmed that consumers are more likely to buy smartphones at a higher price tag if the device projects a smart, hip/cool or productive image. Based on a July consumer survey, Interpret found that 53 percent of those consumers surveyed would purchase a smartphone if it projected a smart image. Forty-eight percent would purchase a smartphone if they perceived it as hip or cool, and 44 percent said they preferred a smartphone that projected a productive image.
Additionally, consumers said they were just as likely to purchase a smartphone from a struggling handset manufacturer as they would be from a brand leader, as long as the three key attributes were present.
Spektor agrees that image and mindshare are very important in the smartphone game. “Android doesn’t have the same amount of hype that an iPhone might have, but there is this mindset among enthusiasts that, ‘Oh, well it’s a Linux phone.’ That it’s more open, and that might be one of the attractions,” he says.
Real Value, Built-In App Store
But Android isn’t all good looks. Spektor adds that Android offers real value, as well as an attractive option for OEMs. “On the consumer end, it’s a good user experience, and it’s available to people who might not have access to a Palm Pre or an iPhone – for instance, those customers on T-Mobile who may now want to switch to another carrier.”
From an OEM’s point of view, Spektor says that Android offers a cheap alternative to developing an entirely unique OS. “I can’t say it’s free, because there are all sorts of R&D costs that go into developing any smartphone, but it’s an affordable way to deliver a smartphone to market.”
Spektor notes that one of Android’s true value propositions is it comes equipped with a ready-to-go apps catalog. “Motorola is bringing out the CLIQ in the fourth quarter of this year. They know that there will be applications out there that have already been written for HTC. There’s this aspect of having a growing developer community and being able to immediately tap into it that’s important.”
The Android Market catalog is currently estimated at around 10,000 downloadable applications. That’s second only to Apple’s estimated 65,000 apps. Spektor thinks that could change as more OEMs like Motorola get involved.
“I think there’s opportunity for Android to take away some of Apple’s clout. One of the things Motorola is trying to do right now is to push their existing developer community to start working within Android. If that community, and others like it, flourish and they do bring tens of thousands of Android applications to market, look out Apple. Because then, what is there that an iPhone can do that an Android phone can’t?” Spektor says.
If there was ever any doubt about the importance of applications in the smartphone game, skeptics need look no further than the launch of the Palm Pre. While the highly anticipated Pre garnered rave reviews for its hardware and multi-tasking webOS, many pointed to its lack of applications as that smartphone’s Achilles heel. To date, estimates of Palm’s total catalog come in at under 100 downloadable applications.
It’s All There
So who else is developing for Android? Current OEM members of the Open Handset Alliance, which built Android, include HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG and Sony Ericsson. Samsung already has released an Android device in Europe, with reported launches on Sprint and T-Mobile in the near future. INQ Mobile recently announced plans to launch an Android handset next year.
As far Android is concerned, the end of 2009 has played out a little like distant thunder before the storm arrives. The OEMs are there. The value is there. The apps are there, and user-experience reviews have come in above average. And of course, the fact that Google has Android’s back doesn’t hurt either.