Android's quest to best the iPhone

If you rewind the clock by just 12 months, Apple's flagship iPhone was king of the hill in the Australian smartphone market.

If you rewind the clock by just 12 months, Apple's flagship iPhone was king of the hill in the Australian smartphone market.

One year ago — almost to the day — the iPhone 3GS went on sale at well-attended midnight launches around the country, with Apple fans lining up in the freezing cold all night to be the first to claim the new device and take advantage of its speed benefits and added features. The TV cameras were there, McDonald's next door did a roaring trade and even the Chaser boys showed up to take the piss.

The iPhone 3G had kicked off proceedings a year before, stealing 5.8 per cent of mobile phone sales in its first three months and bringing the dollars rolling in for Apple Australia.

By October 2009 that share was up to 21 per cent, and it seemed the iPhone could do no wrong.

But oh, how quickly the tables can turn.

Today, just one year later in mid-2010, many in Australia's mobile industry believe the iPhone no longer holds the crown as the dominant smartphone platform. A new challenger has arisen — Google's Android operating system — and like the Hydra of Greek mythology, its multiple heads make it a treacherous rival for Apple to slay.

In Australia's early adopter technology market, an ongoing and vibrant discussion is constantly taking place about which elite Android-based handset is the best, from which carrier, and which applications can mimic or even exceed the capabilities offered by the iPhone. In Australia's development market, many software houses already simultaneously build apps for both platforms.

And the ability for telcos and handset manufacturers to build their own devices using Google's software is spawning a vast wave of Android handsets hitting the Australian market — in all form factors, with features as varying as the stars.

There are still many questions on Australians' minds about Android, however. The first one might be something like "How did it gain so much local momentum so far?" Others ponder just what the real situation is on the street — what Android's power base really is, and what's next for the Google platform in Australia.

Opening moves

The first Android-based phone to be released in Australia was the HTC Dream — known internationally as the G1. After weeks of fevered speculation and some three months after the handset launched in the US, the Dream came to Australia first on Optus' network.

The launch of the Dream did much to build on Optus' reputation as a carrier with its finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment when it came to smartphones. The SingTel subsidiary had stolen a march on its rivals the previous year by nabbing what one Optus executive described as "the lion's share" of iPhone sales, and the expansion into the Android platform was the next step.

The handset, however, would turn out to be a disappointment. As CNET Australia noted in its review at the time, customers who visited their local Optus store to see the device would need to "brace yourself for an underwhelming first contact".

The Android operating system was good — but HTC's first attempt to build hardware for the device was a disappointment. The poor battery life was particularly a problem, and call quality was similarly bad.

A number of other Android handsets were announced for the Australian market in 2009 — although some, such as Melbourne manufacturer Kogan's Agora Pro, never quite made it. The HTC Magic came down under and got better ratings than the Dream — but the device still lagged behind the iPhone 3G, and it was clearly not a match for the 3GS.

With the launch of the Samsung Galaxy in September, Australia's Android market took another lurch forward, but again, as long-time CNET Australia reviewer Joseph Hanlon pointed out, the device wasn't quite up to speed. The multimedia features the consumer market loved weren't in the device, while the business features weren't quite there either.

The HTC Hero rectified many of these mistakes in December, but adoption was hamstrung due to the fact that it was not offered directly by carriers on plans, with customers being forced to pick it up through Harvey Norman.

For the time being, it seemed Android in Australia had stalled. Many of the big international Android handsets — such as Google's own Nexus One and Motorola's Droid — weren't slated to come to Australia. It looked like Apple would have the smartphone market in a stranglehold for the foreseeable future.

Then came the bombshell Australia's Android market had been waiting for: HTC finally came out with a powerful Android handset that would rival — and in some aspects, better — Apple's iPhone 3GS. And Telstra, which had largely kept to the sidelines in the Australian battle for Android devices, pounced.

The turning point

Looking back, most people agree that the inflection point when Android in Australia changed from being an interesting early adopter oddity into a big deal was 6:30am in the morning on 17 February. The location was Barcelona, Spain.

That was the date, time and location that Australia's biggest telco revealed it had won a three-month exclusive to bring HTC's brand new flagship handset — the Desire — down under. And Telstra didn't mince its word about its commitment to Android, describing the momentum as "clearly there".

"This is only the beginning for Telstra and Android smartphones, and we will be pushing these aggressively in the market," a Telstra spokesperson said at the time.

HTC Australia and New Zealand sales and marketing director Anthony Petts said if the previous launches of the Hero and the Magic represented a "progressive" ramp-up of Android in Australia, launch of the Desire was when things went "exponential".

"The tipping point for us would have been the 14th," Petts said — the day in February when HTC revealed the Desire and its little sister, the Legend, which VHA is now selling in Australia. "I look back to that date, I can feel the wave, the excitement at Barcelona," he said.

"You can feel that Android finally had the interest and the strength behind it to take to the next level."

The combination of the Desire's 800x400 AMOLED screen, speedy 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, HTC's Sense user interface built on top of Android 2.1 and Telstra's premium Next G network finally unlocked the Google operating systems full capabilities and put them on display. And customers have been picking up the device in droves — even dumping the iPhone to do so.

The switchers

Louise Roberts

Louise Roberts (Credit: Sphere PR)

One Australian who switched quickly after Telstra launched the Desire in April was Louise Roberts (pictured, below), the managing director of public relations agency Sphere PR, which she established in 2005 to represent technology clients (such as MIA, which is mentioned in this article, which she manages through another firm, Einsteinz). Roberts had previously been using an iPhone 3G for about 20 months with Optus.

If you talk to people in Australia's early adopter community, Roberts' story will be a familiar one. Initially happy with the iPhone's robust email and web browsing capabilities and third-party apps, the executive eventually became frustrated by slow 3G speeds and dropped calls on what appears to be a clogged Optus 3G network in the Sydney CBD.

Telstra made Roberts an offer she couldn't refuse: $200 to get out of her Optus contract. So she picked up a new HTC Desire as part of the switch. "I didn't want to wait for the new iPhone to come out," she said. So away she went.

Roberts' experience with the Desire has overall been positive. "The browsing experience has been fantastic — it seems to be a lot faster than my iPhone, especially in the CBD," she said, adding that there are no more dropped calls, and access to email is faster, too.

One of the oft-cited differences between the Android and iPhone platforms is the maturity of Apple's App Store. Roberts acknowledged there is a shortfall — with mobile apps normally arriving on the iPhone first.

In general, Roberts said she uses quite a few Android apps and is happy for them. "I use the currency thing quite a lot — I've got a client that I bill in US dollars, so I use that," she said. "I use the racing application, my husband and I quite like going to the TAB."

She also uses the BBC News app, Facebook and an app called Peep for Twitter access. "And the Google services, that's basically got everything in it," she said. "Gmail, search, Picasa photos, YouTube, Google Earth and all that kind of thing. Everything is in one place." The executive even has apps for Formula One racing and Buddhist meditation.

The executive found getting used to the new interface "quite challenging", with no real help from Telstra staff, but she picked it up fairly quickly, "being in the tech sector".

And there are some things the Desire does that the iPhone doesn't. In comparison with the iPhone, which Roberts said "very much makes you display things how they want you to", the HTC Desire's Sense interface lets her have five or six different screens, with different things on them.

The executive also likes that she can simply shake the handset to turn down the volume of its ring, if she's in a meeting, and she has also used Google's Goggles application, which lets you take a photo of text, a landmark, a book cover or artwork, for example, to instantly retrieve more information about it.

Asked if she would ever switch back to an iPhone, Roberts said Apple's iPhone 4 would have to be "pretty amazing". "I'm looking forward to things developing on the Android platform," she said.

The next generation

The launch of the HTC Desire appears to have spurred a number of other carriers to enter the Australian marketplace, with a number of handsets already having launched in the first half of 2010 and a sled-load more planned for later in the year. It has seemed at times over the past few weeks as though the Android news has been coming thick and fast in Australia.

Vodafone revealed last week that it would bring Google's own Nexus One down under, although there are no details around when or how the device (which has similar specifications to the Desire, and is also manufactured by HTC) will be launched.

Last week Samsung launched the high-end Samsung Galaxy S, with Optus to have a one-month exclusive on the handset — after that it will also be available from Telstra. LG is bringing its first Android phone to the Australian market — the GW620 — and Telstra will also launch the LG Optimus handset.

Motorola appears to prefer to launch its products through Optus. The manufacturer already has several Android phones out — the Dext, the Backflip and the Quench, and there are rumours Optus will also launch the Milestone, which has been sold internationally as the Droid.

Sony Ericsson has its Xperia X10 out, as well as the mini version. It looks like HTC is planning to follow up its successful Desire and Legend launches by bringing the Wildfire — a lower-specced version of the Desire — down under as well.

Did we miss anyone?

Speaking to the manufacturers themselves, all agree the Android platform has a strong momentum going for it in Australia. And it's easy to see why.

Andrew Morley, Motorola's vice-president of marketing for Europe, Middle East, Africa, Russia and Asia, said the manufacturer has focused very heavily on Android. "All of our devices in Australia are Android," he said. "It's not as if we have three devices, and another operating system on another device and legacy devices."

One reason for that focus is the open and flexible nature of Android — Google lets every manufacturer use the operating system differently, tailoring it to their own needs while still building on the same base.

"We've always been a very strong advocate of open platforms," Morley said. One of the things that we like about Android is that it is so open and it is so flexible — building the eco-system and good healthy competition."

Where Motorola has focused on building social-networking functionality into its Android devices, Sony Ericsson is pushing hard into an area it has long been comfortable with — multimedia. One of the flagship features on the Xperia X10 is Mediascape — software that dramatically enhances Android's native media capabilities when it comes to music, movies, TV shows and so on.

The company's head of marketing for the Asia-Pacific region, Tim Barnes, said sales of the Xperia X10 have exceeded the company's expectations. And again, he's a fan of Android's openness.

"One of the great things about Android is that it is an open platform and that it enables device manufacturers to put their look and feel on the phone," he said. "I think we'll see a continuing focus as well from SE moving forward on the Android platform."

The eco-system

The final piece of the puzzle is the development community. The iPhone taught the market early that mobile apps can make or break a smartphone platform. Is Australia's development community up to creating Android software?

Jon Mooney

Jon Mooney (Credit: MIA International)

According to one executive — Jon Mooney, chief operating officer of mobile developer MIA International (which has 60 staff and has offices in Australia as well as overseas) — it already is. MIA counts companies like Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, Warner Music Australia, ninemsn and more among its clients and Mooney said Android has momentum at the moment.

"There is huge interest in the Android platform at the moment," he said.

Where MIA used to develop an app for the iPhone platform, Mooney said, now customers want the same app to be on Android as well. "The Android development community in Australia — I don't know the exact size, but it's growing," he said. "People who have developed for iPhone are developing for Android."

Mooney points out that Android devices are outselling the iPhone in the US, and while Australia is a bit behind, he expects that by October/November this year, there would be a huge amount of Android devices out in the Australian market — by different manufacturers, in different form factors — and potentially more than there are iPhones.

And the change has come fast. "If you talked to people six months ago about Android and the Google platform, nobody would have really known about it," he said.

Like the handset manufacturers, Mooney emphasises the openness of the Android platform when he talks about developing for it. On the iPhone platform, "everything has to go through the App Store or through Apple", he said, "whereas Android gives the operators the choice to do their own things, the chance to maintain relationships with customers".

"The speed to market is quicker. That's not necessarily in the coding, but in the overall process. You don't have to put [the app] in the marketplace, it can be available from somewhere else to download." And like many people at the moment, Mooney mentioned the debate around Apple's rejection of what it deems as inappropriate applications from its App Store.

"There's been a lot of stories about apps that they've rejected along the way," he said.

The competition between the two platforms will only ever be good for consumers. "These two giants with $30 billion in spare cash each are looking at ways to please the customer," chuckles Kogan Technologies founder Ruslan Kogan, when asked about the mobile platform war.

"You can see them battling it out as well. Apple comes out and said we might be using Bing on our next version of the iPhone. Google comes out and said we don't think we'll be updating Google Maps for the iPhone any more."

But ultimately Kogan, like a growing number of others in the Australian community, believed it's the power of Google's growing community and its utilisation of open source software that will help it win against Apple's relatively closed eco-system.

"There's more people working on the code base for Android than Apple has on their [entire] payroll," he said, noting there has been quite a few Android releases in the past six months. "If you look at iPhone, there's been much fewer developments in that sense. Apple relies on their internal staff to come up with suggestions and improvements."

Android looks like it's settling into a long run at the moment, but the next six months will see strong competition — Apple's iPhone 4 will be launched down under in the next few weeks, and even Nokia has been making a lot of noise locally about its N8 device. In the end, only time will tell just what the future of Google's operating system will hold for Australia.