Will Google's Android Be the Tipping Point for Smart Phones?

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-10-09

Will Google's Android Be the Tipping Point for Smart Phones?

ABI Research analyst Kevin Burden in a new research note said he wondered whether Google's Android mobile operating system will be the tipping point for smart phones.

Burden's question comes just days after T-Mobile said it had tripled its order for the G1 smart phone, the first device based on Android. Burden wrote:

If Android is to become the ubiquitous mobile phone platform that Google and the Open Handset Alliance hope it will be, it will be because operators and handset OEMs recognize the value to their own business models of using standard platforms, not because wireless subscribers clamor for feature-rich phones, much less an Android-based phone.

Burden said because only 14 percent of the world's handsets are smart phones, Google needs to convince handset manufacturers to replace the operating systems that currently power the majority of mobile phones.

Click here for video of T-Mobile's launch of the G1 smart phone.

Google must also spread the notion among operators that having more phones and more subscribers using those phones based on standardized operating systems is, well, good for them.

Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle added that carriers remain one of the big limitations because they want to retain control and haven't been that great about ensuring a good user experience.

"I don't think they will have a choice, however, because the market is moving with or without them and competitive pressure between them is forcing the change," Enderle said.

It's hard to question the analysts' points about standardization, but the G1 will still have to wow people when they get their hands on it to be this "tipping point" Burden thinks it could be.

Judging by T-Mobile's request to triple its order with G1 manufacturer HTC, the hype from T-Mobile's Sept. 23 launch of the phone is bearing powerful fruit. How people will react once they get the G1 phones Oct. 22 is another matter.

iPhone Is Standard

I'd argue, and please don't hate me for this, all you Google, Nokia and RIM lovers, that Apple's iPhone was the tipping point and that it is the smart-phone standard.

Users like the iPhone for how the hardware and software works; they don't care a whit about the underlying operating system that enables the gadget to work as well as it does.

Carriers realize this, and don't tell me they wouldn't love to join AT&T in selling it. Now if Apple can work out deals with other carriers to sell iPhones, the point would be moot. Apple does love having control, yes?

Whether Android "tips" the smart-phone market into standardization or not isn't important. What's important is how the carriers embrace the change.

There may well be a free-for-all land grab for the Linux-based phones based on Android or operating systems from the LiMo Foundation or even market leader Symbian, which is now controlled by Nokia. Enderle told me:

Android, iPhone, [RIM BlackBerry] Bold etc. are addressing the product shortcomings and WiMax will be a forcing function, bringing the costs into affordable range. The end result will be a massive change in how we use the devices and the market size for the resulting offering.  

Fine, but the iPhone will remain the most popular among smart phones, especially once carriers besides AT&T begin to sell it. If G1 sales explode, especially, expect Apple to begin selling iPhones through other carriers. That will make for an interesting arms race.

Look for Google to try to extend the sphere of Android's influence on other computing systems, such as consumer electronics devices. I could see Android in gaming consoles and computerized entertainment centers, maybe MP3 players. Ubiquity in the home, not just on the phone, is Android's best bet.

eWEEK meanwhile is anxiously awaiting its review copy of the Android-based G1 from T-Mobile. Check back by Oct. 16 for our report on the gadget. I played around with the device at the launch in New York and found it to be fast and fun, but hardly game-changing.

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