Is Android destined to be the Windows of smartphones?

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?
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

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)

Editorial standards