Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

Summary: With the spread of Android accelerating, the assumption that Android will become the dominant mobile platform is also gaining stream. But, how likely is it?

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In the 18 months since Android first launched, the mobile OS has gradually gained a sense of inevitability. It has reached the point where it is often talked about in the technology industry as if it is manifest destiny that Android will be the dominant platform in mobile computing.

However, today's mobile market is vastly different than the PC market of the 1980s and 90s. Let's take a look at Android's  and how likely it is that Android will emerge as the platform of choice.

The rise of the computer phone

During the first half of the last decade, the smartphone market was dominated by BlackBerry and Palm Treo (and Nokia outside the U.S.). At the time, these devices were primarily used as a way to get your mail and calendar on your cellphone, and occasionally to access a specialized business application that connected to one of your company's backend databases. The audience was almost completely corporate.

In June 2007, Apple changed the game with the launch of the iPhone. It brought a lot of consumers into the smartphone market with a touchscreen device that ditched the hardware qwerty form factor of the BlackBerry and the Treo and was much simpler to navigate and use. All the hoopla around the iPhone also had the halo effect of educating the public about smartphones and helped create greater consumer demand for smartphones in general.

With the iPhone, it took Apple another year to get the price down, add 3G connectivity, make it enterprise-friendly, and open it up to application developers. But, the revolution had already started. The race was on for other vendors to build mobile devices with three key features to match the iPhone:

  1. A touchscreen user interface
  2. Mobile Web capability
  3. An application platform

BlackBerry came out with the Storm. Palm launched the Pre and a completely redesigned OS to power it. Nokia made its play with the N97. HTC built the Touch Pro and then the Touch Pro2, both running Windows Mobile. And, Microsoft recently hit the restart button on its mobile platform with Windows Phone 7.

None of these "iPhone killers" did anything to stop the iPhone's growth and momentum. It wasn't until Google entered the smartphone market in October 2008 that the competition for the future of mobile computing really started heating up.

Android's ascent

It's easy to think of Android as a knock-off of Apple's iPhone OS--and in many ways it is. But, Google has also been working toward mobile platform for much longer than most people realize. The timeline below shows evolution of Android and how much progress it has made, especially in the past year:

  • July 2005 - Google buys the startup Android, Inc., which was developing a mobile OS
  • November 2007 - Plans for the Android OS are unveiled as part of the announcement of the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of 65 companies dedicated to building a mobile platform on open standards; Android is revealed as an open source OS and the first SDK is made available
  • October 2008 - The first Android phone, the G1 (a.k.a. the HTC Dream), hits the market; the hardware is awkward and unpolished but the OS has potential
  • October 2009 - The Motorola Droid--the first Android 2.0 phone--arrived with a big marketing push from Verizon; it brings Android out of beta and it's a serious competitor to the iPhone, in terms of the three features mentioned above, and it's also a competitor with business-specific devices such as the BlackBerry since the Droid features a slide-down keyboard
  • January 2010 - In partnership with HTC, Google releases its own Android phone, the Nexus One, which features a thin touchscreen form factor and outflanks the iPhone with a higher resolution screen and a faster processor; it is only sold online through Google (with T-Mobile for service) and sales figures are anemic, but it raises the bar for Android with the first device that easily stands toe-to-toe with the iPhone
  • April 2010 - The HTC Incredible debuts on Verizon; it offers most of the same features of the Nexus One but is paired with Verizon's market-leading data network
  • May 2010 - NPD reports that in Q1 2010, Android passed iPhone in unit sales in the U.S.; it's the first big market share victory for Android; In the report, BlackBerry was first with 36% share, then Android (28%), then iPhone (21%)

Will Android be the winner?

When you look at the escalating battle between Android and iPhone for leadership of the smartphone market, it's easy to draw parallels between the early battle between the Apple II and the IBM PC, and the later war between Mac OS and Microsoft Windows.

In both cases, Apple lost. Both times you had Apple, a company that handled the entire product soup-to-nuts, versus an ecosystem of vendors that released a broader array of products.

We see the exact same scenario playing out with Apple against Google (and its Open Handset Alliance). That's why most people in the technology industry expect Android to be the ultimate winner. They've seen it all before.

However, the smartphone market is far more fragmented than the PC market has ever been, and established platforms BlackBerry and Nokia's Symbian still dominate, even though they are struggling to keep up with the pace of innovation from Android and iPhone.

Both BlackBerry and Symbian have major platforms updates coming in 2010. Hewlett-Packard's purchase of Palm guarantees that the webOS platform will have the resources it needs to push forward. And, Microsoft has hit the reboot button on its mobile platform with Windows Phone 7. So, the smartphone market is not just about iPhone versus Android, even though they are the leading innovators.

Not all of these platforms will survive. But, it will be tough to put the genie back on the bottle with all of these platforms. Mobile is simply going to have more platforms and more choices than the PC market. There will likely be at least three big platforms and probably a couple niche platforms that serve specific audiences (enterprise, geographies or languages, etc.)

As all mobile phones become smartphones and as smartphones become the primary computing devices for most new users in emerging markets, this is going to be a huge growth market during the next decade. Nevertheless, even with all of its momentum, the lead isn't going to just fall into Android's lap.

In order to keep growing, Google needs to figure out the Android fragmentation issue (as I recently discussed), and how to keep innovating at a rapid pace without leaving too many of its users behind and thus creating disgruntled customers who could jump into the open arms of a competitor.

Also, don't forget that another front has been opened in the Android-iPhone war: Tablets.

Apple has scaled up its iPhone OS to run on its tablet computer, the iPad. There are a variety of vendors who would like to do the same with Android. Plus, HP has stated it would like to create webOS tablets and BlackBerry is rumored to be working on a tablet that would be companion for BlackBerry smartphones.

It will be important to watch the impact (and halo effect) that tablets could have on their smartphone cousins. Tablets have the potential to draw more developers to the platform, but they could also drive further fragmentation of the platform as well.

See also:

Source: Is Android destined to be the Windows of mobile computing? (TechRepublic)

Topics: Hardware, Android, Smartphones, BlackBerry, Operating Systems, Mobility, iPhone, Google, Apple, Tablets

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58 comments
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  • Well as long as AT&T is the only US carrier...

    Apple will fall behind, Android is available on all carriers and with several models. Whether or not Android will dominate the market is another story.
    mrlinux
    • America isn't the "the smartphone market"

      America is at best a rapidly shrinking segment of the smartphone market. Apple may need to eventually create a non-SIM phone, but they are a global player using global technologies.
      croberts
      • RE: Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

        @croberts
        Most of the World is GSM based. But even outside the US
        Apple is only allowing it on select carriers and that will hold it back As for Smartphone market, US is just starting, the NON US market has been going on for way longer.
        mrlinux
      • I would say over a decade that will become less

        @croberts: of a problem, well except for Sprint, since all of the carrier save for Sprint are moving over to LTE, which is being positioned as 4G and will be the global standard. Sprint is leading out with it's WiMax technology for 4g, which is likely going to be a bad move on the part of Sprint.
        Snooki_smoosh_smoosh
  • My thoughts:

    It's very likely considering it has been rooted:

    http://www.neowin.net/news/evo-4g-gets-rooted-before-it-even-launches
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • Windows of smartphones?

    Is that a good thing???
    Userama
    • RE: Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

      @Userama
      I suspect the comparison was meant how Windows dominates the PC market, Android will dominate the smart phone market.
      mrlinux
      • RE: Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

        @mrlinux

        That's right.

        The more important thing, I think, is the question of whether domination really matters or if having innovative and thriving products and company be more significant.

        Microsoft dominates, but really we don't think much of them as the company to turn to for innovation, design etc.

        Both Microsoft and Apple are surviving/thriving. So why does domination matter at all if it is not necessarily correlated to surviving/thriving?
        thibaulthalpern
  • It will, but this will only matter in the short run.

    In the long run, HTML5 and other open standards will make the OS irrelevant. Android may and probably will still dominate, but given that "apps" will be cross platform it will just be due to user preference and not because of Android-only apps.
    Michael Kelly
    • OS irrelevant - maybe

      @Michael Kelly
      Time will tell. I still think performance issues will for some time require native apps. Perhaps if the bandwidth increases dramatically. Still developers wanting to target a hardware/software environment would prefer one that makes it easier on them. With android you can write java apps and get more deployments on more devices. With iPhone you get to write SystemC and go through Apple's approval process and run only on the iPhone. If html5 means that Apple can no longer control the apps then Apple's business model is toast.
      DevGuy_z
    • RE: Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

      @Michael Kelly

      Doubtful that open standards will necessarily make the OS irrelevant. Hasn't that been a longstanding mantra of the linux and opensource software folks?

      What we've actually seen is that opensource software has been combined with non-opensource software to create innovative produces. Think Apple. Think Google. etc.

      I don't think it's going to be totally opensource dominated at all. Reality unfolds in very unexpected ways such as how opensource software is taken on by private companies to produce products that are not opensource en masse.
      thibaulthalpern
  • Do you bloggers even review past computing history?

    The dominant Smartphone platform for the longest time was the original palm OS. Windows CE was up there for a while.<br><br>Symbian was going to be the "next big thing". <br><br>Then RIM took over with Blackberry OS.<br><br>Then iPhone OS was going it be it...<br><br>Now android is the next big thing. <br><br>Great. Did you know my Telco is actually trying to sell Android, as if Sally Secretary gives a hoot. And Bill the accountant isn't much different: he just wants to open the odd Excel spreadsheet in an emergency.<br><br>Anyone who thinks the OS is a sellable feature for smartphones, bloggers included, is deluded. Preferences have shifted in the past, and they will continue to do so.
    croberts
    • The OS is important to me!

      @croberts For one an android phone can run flash. My kids too if they knew they could run flash games would probably choose android. Plus free turn by turn navigation and other things makes the OS almost more important than the phone itself which typically now have all the same features
      DevGuy_z
      • RE: Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

        @DevGuy_z : I have neither iPhone or an Android phone and I have GPS, web and email working just fine. The OS has nothing to do with it.
        ThePrairiePrankster
      • Not really

        Android 2.2 can install the mobile Flash Player and run SOME flash, and play SOME games. Others will crash and burn the phone. I'm not sure your kids would be so happy with Android when they found out how spotty game support was.
        frgough
      • RE: Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

        @DevGuy_z

        Same features doesn't mean comparable experience!

        This is where a lot of people (including bloggers and tech journalists) are wrong. Yes, in a simplified standardised comparative approach listing features in a grid format, the iPhone and various Android phones are very similar. But that's because the experience of using the phone (which is NOT quantifiable and can NOT be simplified into a table format) is miles apart.

        Think about it. Car A has four wheels, a steering wheel, automatic lock and windows and V6 engine. Well, Car B does too. Feature for feature they're the same. Ah...but we are not able to quantify and list how the drive and experience of using both cars are different! That's where the narrative has to enter.

        Can't do a simple feature-by-feature comparison. Doesn't work that way.
        thibaulthalpern
    • RE: Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

      @croberts Yeah, but Sally and Bill watching The Daily Show and seeing a commerical that repeats Droid Does .. over and over again will make them think Droid Does and everything else does not. And the over 35 crowd who adore Star Wars will hear it and get warm fuzzies. So once the general public associates Droid with Android .. it'll be like Scotch tape or "googling an answer" .. it won't matter what hardware maker puts out the hardware because Sally will know that Droid does what they THINK they need it to do. ;)
      ben@...
      • And then they'll talk to their friends

        who have iPhones and love them to death.

        News flash for you: people are not the mindless drones you think they are.
        frgough
    • The reason the OS is important is:

      @croberts With Android if you you want to switch brands of phone or even switch carriers, you can stick with the same interface you are used to. You are much less locked in.

      And to Mr. Kelly: As long as Apple is selling phones they are going to keep a strangle hold on the software for said phones. So the idea that apps are going to be cross platform will never come to be. HTMML5 may help...some...but just as on the desktop you can't do everything through a web browser.
      cornpie
      • RE: Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

        @cornpie There are lots of countries/regions where the iPhone is not locked in to any one carrier. Canada, Hong Kong, much of Europe where you can buy unlocked iPhones and use them with any GSM mobile phone operator.
        thibaulthalpern