A year after launch, Google's Android mobile operating system is really starting to pick up steam.
This is generally bad news for rival smartphone companies like Apple, RIM, and Nokia, but perhaps worst for Microsoft, whose outdated Windows Mobile is getting snubbed by some phone makers in favor of Android.
What's changed? Over the past few months, several phone makers and mobile operators have announced their support for Android phones, many of which are beginning to ship.
- Most recently, Verizon Wireless, the biggest U.S. wireless carrier, announced it would start selling two Android-based phones this year. It appears, one by HTC and one by Motorola. (This is bad news for Research in Motion, as Verizon had been mostly promoting the BlackBerry as its iPhone rival. Now RIM has more competition.)
- Sprint will also sell two Android phones this year, one by Samsung and one by HTC.
- T-Mobile will sell several Android phones this year, including Motorola's new CLIQ, and a wood-grain "Fender" edition of the HTC myTouch 3G.
- AT&T will reportedly sell Android devices next year, including one from Dell.
None of this means Android will necessarily be a big commercial success, but it's a good start. (And yes, a slow start. But building gadgets is not fast.)
One big help: Because Apple's iPhone -- still the phone to beat -- is still only available from AT&T in the U.S., all of its rivals will be pushing Google phones (and a few others) as their main Christmas smartphones this year. That should easily drive Android sales to their all-time high.
Why is Android a good bet for the mobile industry -- and why is it becoming popular?
- It's technically solid. Especially better than Windows Mobile, which manufacturers are weighing it against. (Though it's not as polished as the iPhone or perhaps the Palm Pre.)
- It's free. No license cost for phone makers.
- It has the next-best mobile app platform to Apple's, and unlike Palm or RIM, could actually support decent games. Developers are paying attention to Android, more so than other platforms.
- It's open-source. This means manufacturers and carriers can mess with it to their hearts' content, in an effort to offer differentiated experiences. Thus, stuff like HTC's Sense user interface, Motorola's BLUR user interface, and custom services promised by Verizon. (Hopefully, this can be more productive than how PC companies compete in the commoditized Windows-powered computer industry -- mostly on price.)
- Google is investing millions of dollars into helping companies who want help. Google's hope is that Android will get hundreds of millions of more people using the Internet on their phones, so it could eventually make billions in mobile advertising.
All of this means that Android is shaping up to be a powerful mobile platform, and the industry is giving it an impressive level of support.
There's still plenty of uncertainty here -- whether consumers will like the devices, whether hardware costs can come down enough to ship Android on $0-$99 mass-market phones, whether Apple will react by distributing the iPhone at every carrier, and whether the Android app ecosystem will take off.
Market share won't be easy to come by, and it'll be many years before Google makes any money off Android.
But Android boss Andy Rubin has to be pretty happy these days.
Want to check out this year's Android phones? Check out Business Insider's slideshow.
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Dan Frommer writes for Business Insider.