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Android to make waves among feature phones

With latest release of Google's mobile OS, handset makers will look to tap platform's faster processing speed to target low-cost feature phone segment, predicts market analyst.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

If Google fulfils its pledge to deliver a much-improved performance with version 2.2 of its Android mobile platform, codenamed Froyo, handset manufacturers would be encouraged to adopt the operating system to support their low-cost models.

According to Ovum analyst Tim Renowden, Froyo's increased performance capabilities and the rising popularity of the Android OS among "consumers, developers and handset manufacturers", mean that phone makers are likely to roll out the mobile platform lower down their product portfolio.

An earlier report by Android Police, a tech blog dedicated to news on the Google OS, revealed that it had put Froyo to the test by using a tool called "linpack" to assess the "heart and brains" of Android running on the Nexus One smartphone.

Results from the test showed Froyo delivered a 450 percent speed boost compared to its 2.1 predecessor, dubbed Vanilla, running on the same phone. In a nutshell, the Nexus One operating on Vanilla registered 6.5 to 7MFLOPS (mega floating-point operations per second) processing power, compared to Nexus One on Froyo's 37.5MFLOPS.

Noting the outcome of the benchmarks, a blog post on tech Web site, MobileBeat, said: "This increase in processing power means that Android device makers like Samsung, HTC, Sony Ericsson or LG can put Android 2.2 software on what the industry today considers feature phones--which is affordable handsets that are not considered smartphones."

In his e-mail to ZDNet Asia, Renowden concurred with MobileBeat's assessment. He noted that other ecosystem players such as chipmaker MediaTek, which announced it will be producing low-cost chipsets for mobile phones running on Android, are fueling the momentum for phone makers to integrate the OS into hardware that run across the entire mobile phone spectrum.

Handset makers pledge Android support
HTC, for one, is looking to ride the Android wave. Jack Tong, HTC's Asia-Pacific vice president, told ZDNet Asia the company is the "world's largest provider of Android smartphones" and believes the OS, including Froyo, offers "significant advantages" for people looking for a variety of phones ranging from basic to advance devices.

That said, HTC works on a principal belief that all users are different and have varying needs which cannot be met by one device design, Tong noted.

"For this reason, we continue to [consider] the best mix of technology and design to meet the specific requirements of each individual market segment," he said. "This includes evaluating key advantages offered by Android, Windows Phone 7 or Qualcomm's Brew platform for handsets targeted at the low-to-mid [phone] segments."

He did predict, though, that traditional feature phone users will in time switch to smartphones, citing figures from Gartner that stated smartphone sales in Asia will expand fourfold by 2015.

Rival handset maker Sony Ericsson also advocates an "open, multi-strategy platform approach". Peter Ang, vice president of marketing for Sony Ericsson Asia-Pacific, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that this approach gives consumers maximum choice as different platforms are suitable for different end-user needs.

Asked about the significance of Android in Sony Ericsson's overall mobile strategy, Ang said: "While the OS is an enabler [to help] deliver a well-rounded user experience, we believe it is important to create our customized [user interface] on top of the Vanilla [version] in our Android devices so that consumers can truly enjoy communication and entertainment experiences in a smart way."

He cited the company's Xperia X8 handset as an example of an Android OS-based smartphone that sits in its "mid-level" product portfolio but is aimed at extending its reach to a broader audience, beyond smartphone users.

According to a previous ZDNet Asia article, Sony Ericsson reported a second quarter net profit of 12 million euros (US$15.5 million), significantly better than the 213 million euros (US$275.6 million) loss it posted the previous year. This positive showing came on the back of the launch of its Android-based Xperia X10 device as well as the company's cost-cutting measures that reduced its workforce by a third.

Nokia hardest hit by Android charge?
But while the Android momentum gathers pace, Ovum's Renowden sounded a note of caution for Finnish phonemaker Nokia, currently a dominant player in the feature phone market.

He said Android's "functional and adaptable platform" presents "serious threat" to Nokia's dominance in the low-cost feature phone segment.

"The problem for Nokia is that it's no longer competing against individual manufacturers but against a platform that many of its key rivals have adopted," the analyst explained. "Consumers can pick the Android platform and then have a choice of hardware from a number of different manufacturers."

Renowden urged Nokia to refresh the Symbian OS to include "features and performance" that consumers are demanding.

The Symbian OS already runs on hardware specs that are touted for use on possible low-end Android devices, but the difference between the two is that while Android is developing rapidly, Symbian appears "stagnated", the analyst said.

"The impending release of Symbian^3 is important but may not be radical enough to slow Android's momentum," he noted.

However, Renowden added that Nokia still has a huge market-share advantage in the low-cost and feature phone markets, which will take "some time to erode".

"I think it's a mistake to write Nokia off but its market share may be less dominant than it has been in the past few years," he said.

In a report earlier this month, Nokia told ZDNet Asia the company "remains committed to the Symbian platform and its role in bringing smartphones to the masses". It added that it will continue to support and play an active role in further development of the mobile platform.

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