Android 2.0: The iPhone killer at last?

Get past the hype: Here's the real deal on Android's chances to unseat the iPhone

In its three years, the iPhone has redefined the mobile device. But despite the iPhone's popularity, it is by no means certain to become the mobile equivalent of Windows, the dominant platform that defines our experience of a particular technology, as well as the business choices that surround it.

Google's Android 2.0 OS is the latest in a series of mobile offerings seeking to derail the iPhone's momentum. Backed by heavyweights Google, Motorola, Verizon Wireless, Acer, and other big-name manufacturers, Android could potentially knock the iPhone down a peg. After all, while users love the iPhone, Apple's controlling tendencies have frustrated developers, and its disrespect for business concerns have frustrated IT.

[ InfoWorld's Neil McAllister wonders why Android developers seem so unhappy. | Get InfoWorld's 20-page hands-on look at the new generation of mobile devices. | Video preview: See the Android 2.0 Droid in action. ]

Meanwhile, Research in Motion's BlackBerry remains well entrenched, despite the iPhone onslaught and RIM's own slow response in adapting the BlackBerry beyond messaging. And for most of the world, Nokia's Symbian is king -- not to mention the fact that Palm and Microsoft have yet to give up on their respective WebOS and Windows Mobile visions.

Simply put, it's a tumultuous and rapidly evolving time for mobile -- so what's a buyer, IT organization, or developer to do? Here's a guide to the key issues that are shaping the still young mobile marketplace, and how Android will fare carving a niche for itself in mobile IT.

Motorola and Verizon: Sights are set on the iPhone
In a few weeks, the first smartphones using Google's Android 2.0 will be available, with iPhone competitors Motorola and Verizon Wireless already promoting Droid as the iPhone killer. And no doubt, the recently released Android 2.0 SDK will draw developer interest. But we've heard this song before, hype and SDK, applied both to poorly designed products such as the RIM BlackBerry Storm as well as to good products such as the Palm Pre. None, including Android's previous incarnations, has succeeded in unseating the iPhone.

So what makes Android 2.0 a plausible competitor? For starters, this fourth version of the Android OS finally supports Microsoft Exchange, though carriers and device makers are able to turn off that feature if they want. It also supports multiple e-mail accounts in a single inbox. Increased support for HTML 5 technologies -- including database APIs, offline application caching, and geolocation -- also mean that Android 2.0 devices and apps can have the kind of rich functionality the iPhone is known for, in a multi-app context unknown to the iPhone.

Of course, the Palm Pre's WebOS also offers most of these capabilities, yet has not stood up to the iPhone. However, that may be more an issue of Palm being a small company at the edge of extinction before the Pre came out and the fact that only an also-ran carrier widely rumored to be up for sale -- Sprint -- agreed to offer it in the United States.

By contrast, Android has Motorola and Verizon behind it, both with axes to grind against the iPhone. Motorola wants to reclaim its StarTAC mojo from a decade earlier, and Verizon has been blocked by AT&T from offering the two premium smartphones: the iPhone and the BlackBerry Bold. More to the point, both Motorola and Verizon are pushing their own Android-oriented application development environments meant to compete with the iPhone App Store.

With other industry stalwarts such as Acer and HTC also coalescing around Android, the question remains: Will users follow? To be sure, the power behind Android has shifted the atmosphere around the mobile platform away from its initial positioning as an open source-driven platform, a position that to my mind slowed down Android and risked making it the mobile equivalent of desktop Linux: just a plaything for open source community.

In other words, by partnering big, Android may have exponentially increased its appeal.

What could trip up Android
Despite the promise, there are several factors that should give any user, IT operation, or developer pause before investing in Android.

The first is that Android has taken four versions over two years to reach the same ballpark as the iPhone; WebOS did it in a dot-one upgrade a few months after its release. Google's slow pace is worrisome, calling to mind Microsoft's troubled approach to mobile development. Plus having all those versions and their variants risk confounding app developers, who may stay away.

Which also brings up a major failure of Windows Mobile: the fact that every device was significantly different -- something that Android also risks. This fracture made both app development and IT support impossible for Windows Mobile, as there were too many exceptions to manage. It's also why Java's presence on 1 billion "feature phones" -- the not-so-smartphones that comprise the majority of cell phone sales still -- is meaningless to developers and IT. Each device is essentially its own platform, creating a fragmentation that benefits no one but the carriers who use it to push continual purchases of new devices as if they were games or jewelry. Android will fade away if it follows the Windows Mobile or Java tracks.

Also, Android started as a Google-oriented platform, meant to promote Google's Gmail and other cloud services. That degree of lock-in was more than even Apple or Microsoft try to achieve, and it didn't work in Google's case. Google is a powerhouse, but it fails much more than it succeeds, and using its mobile OS to help make its cloud offerings the new monopoly wasn't a bright idea.

But I'm less concerned over Google's mixed success record than I am about the active support of Verizon and Motorola. Neither company is market-savvy, nor known for innovation (well, Motorola once was, but that was a long time ago, and its floundering in the 1990s and 2000s isn't encouraging).

Worse, both Verizon and Motorola are tuning their app dev environments to support their specific markets (Verizon's network and Motorola's devices), which is likely to conflict with each other's goals, Google's goals, and developers' goals at some point. Apple is no less self-interested, but there's little confusion as to who's in charge. Android could become yet another failed partnership among selfish, oafish industry heavyweights.

Still, it's clear that Android is worth watching. We'll soon know if this time there's a credible "iPhone killer." Android 2.0 has the best chance of joining the BlackBerry and iPhone as a mobile device that will actually matter to users, IT, and developers in, say, 2012 -- but it's still just a chance.

All hail the consumer
It used to be that a smartphone was a business device, which due to its pioneering of handheld messaging and enterprise-class security features meant a BlackBerry. Now, consumers are driving smartphone sales, not businesses, a tipping of the scales in favor of the iPhone.

Until summer 2008, the iPhone was considered a consumer toy. But when a new iPhone OS added Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync support, allowing the iPhone to connect to many organizations' e-mail systems, the iPhone quickly infiltrated business settings, putting IT under great pressure to relax security guidelines to give users the device they want not just for e-mail, but for Web access and apps usage.

Apple's reliance on a subset of ActiveSync capabilities, and several snafus in its implementation of ActiveSync, won't convince security-conscious IT to let the device in, but the iPhone outclasses the rest of the ActiveSync-based mobile contenders -- Palm's WebOS-based Pre, Nokia's Nx series, and soon Android 2.0 devices -- and is at least as capable in its ActiveSync support as they are. Microsoft's Windows Mobile supports more ActiveSync capabilities, but that OS has languished for years and no longer registers on most new-purchase surveys.

This "good enough for most" ActiveSync support, coupled with the device's high personal appeal, means that the iPhone will make big inroads into small and medium-size businesses. After all, these businesses trust ActiveSync for their PCs and home-based users, so why not for mobile access? (Plus, the BlackBerry's security advantage requires paying for and administering a specialty server, which is not a good fit for IT budgets these days.)

Large enterprises -- especially those governed by various compliance regulations, such as finance and health care -- will continue to resist the iPhone. Regardless, practically every mobile management vendor is adding iPhone support and BlackBerry-like security and management, which will make it easier to safely adopt the iPhone even in large enterprises by 2011.

This gives the iPhone a real shot at becoming the dominant smartphone in both consumer and business markets, at least in North America, over the next year. The BlackBerry is likely to maintain its lead due to its large-enterprise dominance, but its poor Web and apps capabilities mean that it can't bank on user passion to maintain that lead.

The global factor
The final factor hedging against a single, dominant mobile platform is regionality. Given how splintered the smartphone marketplace is across the globe, there may never be the equivalent of a Windows for mobile, providing a near-universal standard for users, IT, and developers alike.

Nokia, for example, doesn't matter in the United States when it comes to smartphones, but its BlackBerry-like devices are very popular in Europe. Conversely, iPhones are not nearly as popular in Europe as in North America.

In the United States, Canalys reports that the BlackBerry accounted for 52 percent of smartphone sales this year (down from 56 percent the previous year) and the iPhone for 23 percent (up from 7 percent the previous year). And the iPhone's pace is accelerating, closing in on the BlackBerry family as the most popular smartphone, according to a September survey.

Europe is seeing Nokia's dominance steadily erode, mainly due to iPhone sales; the BlackBerry has not gained as much traction in Europe. Canalys's most recent sales data show Nokia at 64 percent (down from 71 percent a year earlier), iPhone 13 percent (up from 2 percent), and BlackBerry at 10 percent (up from 7 percent).

Asia is a Nokia-dominated continent, with Nokia devices accounting for 60 percent of smartphone sales (up from 61 percent a year earlier), followed by Sharp and Fujitsu, both at 9 percent (and both down from 12 percent). Both the iPhone and BlackBerry are inconsequential in Asia.

Worldwide, Gartner says the iPhone is the No. 3 smartphone sold at 13 percent, after Nokia (at 45 percent) and Research in Motion's BlackBerry series (at 19 percent). Google's Android and Palm's WebOS are inconsequential across the globe.

Sales is one thing; usage is another. And usage dictates where content developers, cloud providers, Web app developers, and others place their investments. The iPhone is the second-most used mobile device (including regular cell phones and smartphones) worldwide to browse the Web -- and No. 1 in North America and Europe, according to StatCounter. (Opera Mobile is No. 1 globally, thanks to its high usage in more conventional cell phones and in Asia, where iPhones and BlackBerrys have made little impression.) For just smartphones, mobile Web advertising firm AdMob reports that globally the iPhone now has the largest percentage of Web use, at 40 percent, followed by Symbian (mainly used by Nokia, which essentially controls its development) at 34 percent, and BlackBerry at 8 percent.

Developers and global enterprises may find themselves facing regional mobile differences, forcing them to support perhaps four platforms: iPhone, BlackBerry, Nokia's Symbian, and Android -- assuming the Motorola/Verizon combination drives its adoption in North America and adoption by Asian manufacturers such as Aver and HTC helps it catch fire in Asia.

How the mobile market will pan out
The mobile market is young and fluid enough to confound any predictions. For example, Android could fail under the competing interests and reactionary approaches taken by its big-company backers, or it could become the standard forced onto consumers by these dominant providers. If Verizon is disappointed with Android, it could turn to Palm's WebOS and give Palm a new chance at meaningful success -- unless Verizon cuts a deal with Apple instead. Microsoft may pull a rabbit out of a hat and reinvent Windows Mobile in an insanely compelling way, though a Zune-like result is more apt given its history.

Still, my bet is that when the smoke clears after a few years, iPhone and BlackBerry will be what matters in North America, with BlackBerry becoming the "safe" choice for businesses that don't want their employees accessing the Web or running personal apps -- the lock-down device, essentially -- and the iPhone being the dominant device by individuals and most businesses. In Europe, I see a three-way market led by Nokia's Symbian and followed closely by the iPhone, with the BlackBerry being the choice of the multinational business and government agency crowd.

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