The Apple iPhone now has a formidable competitor: the rest of the world. Indeed, the Android platform launched by Google in October 2008, is currently being used by companies such as Acer, Dell, HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson to power their smartphones.
According to a study conducted over the period July to September 2010, 44% of smartphones sold in the United States run under Android while 23% are iPhones and 22% are BlackBerry devices. How can we explain this craze for Android? There are many reasons: the variety of Android smartphones on the market, the power and ease of use of Android, the near-perfect integration of Google services (Gmail, contacts, calendar, YouTube…) as well as Facebook and Twitter, and the availability of a large number of applications, most of them free, on the Android Market.
The innovative aspects of Android
Android is a software platform which provides all the features needed in a modern smartphone. It is actually an evolution of the Linux operating system and is open source software released under an Apache license. Consequently, manufacturers of smartphones can use Android to power their smartphones without having to pay Google. This greatly reduces development and manufacturing costs which explains why some of the devices are so affordable (compared to the iPhones for example).
Another innovative aspect is that each manufacturer can easily customize Android in accordance with its specific needs. For example, HTC offers several Android smartphones from the very powerful HTC Desire HD to the basic Tattoo. These devices are naturally available at different prices. For example, one can buy Android smartphones in Mauritius from Rs 8000 like the Samsung Galaxy Europa reviewed in December. The contrast is striking with the iPhone which Apple positions as a premium product exclusively.
The HTC Desire HD, a high-end Android smartphone reviewed in December too, was launched at the end of 2010 worldwide and is currently available in Mauritius. At the hardware level, the HTC Desire HD has a Snapdragon processor running at 1GHz and a 4.3-inch AMOLED capacitive multitouch widescreen with a resolution of 480 x 800. It features a 8 megapixel camera, an FM radio, an accelerometer, a GPS and runs on both 3G networks (up to 7.2 megabits per second) and WiFi. It can even record video at 720p (hence the HD, albeit HD-ready only…) For information, the Google Nexus One is based on the HTC Desire HD’s little brother, the Desire.
Android has been designed to rely on web services provided by Google. Once an Android smartphone is turned on, the user can link it to a Gmail account and thus get access to all Google services. For example, he can use the smartphone to read and write his emails, view and update his calendar, browse his contacts and, of course, call them and send them SMS, etc… An Android device may be linked to multiple Gmail accounts at the same time (including Google Apps for Domain accounts) and this capability allows the smartphone to become a formidable productivity center.
The integration of Facebook in Android smartphones is deep. It is possible to display a Facebook widget which allows the user to post new status messages very easily and also to view news feeds from friends in real time. In addition, the synchronization of existing Facebook profile data (such as phone numbers and email addresses) with existing contacts on the smartphone is done automatically. The pre-installed Facebook application provides access to all features of Facebook including taking and uploading photos. The Twitter integration is as good. Consequently, Android smartphones allows people to know at every moment what is happening on the two most popular social networks on the planet.
A plethora of applications
A smartphone differs from a conventional telephone because it allows the installation of additional applications. Android smartphones have access to Android Market, which currently contains over 100,000 applications. These applications are often free and of very good quality. Unfortunately, paid applications are not yet available in Mauritius… but Google is working on that.
Naturally, the most popular applications tend to come from well-known companies. For example, Google provides very powerful applications like YouTube, Translate, Earth, Maps and Skymap. Examples from other companies include Last.fm, Amazon MP3, Gowalla, Foursquare, TweetDeck and Dropbox. And, naturally, Adobe Flash 10.1.
Lots of applications come from smaller publishers and many of them are of excellent quality. Examples are PicSay, Sketcher, doubleTwist, XiiaLive and Shazam. Android Market also provides access to a variety of free games such as Angry Birds, Air Control, Jewels, Tower Raiders and Raging Thunder.
Developing an application for Android is easy because all the tools are available for free and follow established software development standards. Programmers can work on Linux, Windows or Mac OS X and only needs to download Java, the Eclipse development environment and a plugin provided by Google. The plugin contains an Android emulator which even allows people to develop Android applications without having to buy a smartphone. Uploading the application to the Android Market takes a matter of minutes and no formal acceptance procedure is required.
Next step: the tablet
The success of the iPad indicates that the public wants tablets with larger screens than a smartphone. Archos, Cisco, Dell, LG, Samsung and other manufacturers are putting the finishing touches on tablets running Android. Google has even announced Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the next version of Android specially designed for tablets… Interestingly, the Indian Minister of Human Resources Development has announced an Android tablet for 2011 which will be available in India at $35 (about Rs 1000).
The future will be full of smartphones and tablets… Android smartphones and tablets naturally!
[This article, in French, originally appeared in the 100% Mauritian IT magazine, TechKnow.]