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Monday, February 11, 2008

Google Android Set To Storm Mobile World Congress

Google's Android software debuts in Barcelona
The first mobile phones fitted with Google's Android software platform made their debut at an industry trade show on Monday, a key advance in the struggle to bring the power of desktop computing to handsets.

Google launched Android last year, hoping to establish its software as the dominant operating system for mobile phones and to improve the quality of web-browsing for handset users.

"What is happening with Android today is that we are seeing a number of technology companies demonstrating how Android will operate on their technology," Google spokesman Barry Schnitt told AFP on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress.

Although the technology on display Monday is in prototype form, experts and journalists were so eager to witness its demonstration that all places for private displays were booked out on Monday within the first hour of the show.

"It's definitely very promising," an analyst for technology research firm Gartner, Carolina Milanesi, told AFP. "This means that we should be on track to see commercial devices in the second half of 2008."

She stressed however that "the road between a prototype and commercial handset is a long one."

Google announced a broad 34-member group called the "Open Handset Alliance" in November last year to develop Android, including China Mobile, HTC, Intel, Motorola, Qualcomm, T-Mobile, Telefonica, LG and eBay.

The demonstrations Monday were by a handful of chip makers -- ARM, Marvell, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, NEC and ST Microelectronics -- which showed Android working in prototype form, the companies and sources confirmed.

"We're demonstrating a prototype of Android," a spokesman for ARM told AFP.

US chip maker Texas Instruments is to demonstrate another prototype phone later Monday in public.

Android is open-source software, meaning its code is available to other developers for free allowing them to build applications and features that can function on the operating platform.

The idea for Google is that Android will lead to radically improved functionality, notably for web browsing, meaning more people will use their mobile phones for Internet surfing.

Currently, surfing the Internet on a mobile phone can still be a frustrating experience, with clunky software and slow download speeds.

"There are few phones that provide a compelling web experience," explained Google's Schnitt.

"As people use the web more, they'll use Google more, and we'll be able to sell more relevant advertising."

Milanesi said that the ultimate test of Android's success would be how easily applications could be used.

"It should have everything that we see on the PC, not just shrunk down to work on a mobile phone but really being optimised for a mobile phone," she said.

Android faces competition from the world's biggest mobile phone maker, Nokia, and its Symbian system; US software giant Microsoft, the maker of Windows; and a separate consortium working on an open-source Linux solution.

The interest in a new software platform from Google stems from the company's desire to establish its brand in emerging markets.

"If you look at emerging markets, people are more likely to have their first browsing experience on a phone not a PC (personal computer)," said Milanesi.

Google surprised analysts when it unveiled Android last November. They had expected the Internet giant to announce the launch of its own gPhone to compete against Apple's popular iPhone.

"Imagine not just a single Google phone, or G-phone, but thousands of G-phones made by a variety of manufacturers," said Google chief executive Eric Schmidt at the time.

This could be Android's weak spot, however.

Taiwan's HTC and ailing US manufacturer Motorola are the two main handset manufacturers in the Open Handset Alliance.

"For it to become a worldwide platform and drive uptake, they need more manufacturers onboard," said Milanesi.

Google's Android Is Here -- iPhone Better Watch Its Back
I've just come from a demonstration of the Android software platform for portable devices here at the 2008 Mobile World Congress.

Android is an open-source operating system that is reportedly the heart-and-soul of the upcoming Google(GOOG - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) phone, among others. Open source means anyone can develop software for and freely use the platform.

I saw Android in action on a very basic GSM/GPRS handset that has a very simple 200MHz ARM processor. It was able to make and receive calls, email and SMS messages, and browse the Web, play audio and video files, handle YouTube files and even help you with directions.

Of course, since Google is the major force behind the Open Handset Alliance, which is the major force behind the software. So, it's no surprise that Android the Web browser opens to the Google search page, Gmail is Android's email client and Google Maps is what you use to find where you're going with Android.

What I've learned today is that Android will take many forms. Depending on the sophistication of the hardware involved (what the processor chip can handle or whether it has a touch screen or high-speed data connection), this new mobile OS platform will spawn many different styles and types of mobile devices.

A number of chip manufacturers here at the show, such as Texas Instruments(TXN - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr), Qualcomm(QCOM - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr), Marvel(MRVL - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr), NEC(NIPNY - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) and ST Micro(STM - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) are quietly demonstrating what a super-duper Android device might, could and will look like in the near future.

Actually, if you're dying to see what Android looks like for yourself you can download and install the online software development kit here.

There are available versions that should run on your Windows, Mac or Linux computer.

From what I saw at today's short demonstration, it's very possible that Android phones could give Apple's (AAPL - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) iPhone a run for its money. I was amazed at how well -- and how quickly -- Android worked on a phone with a simple processor.

I can just imagine what it will be able to do on handsets with even more capable, faster, better and smarter processors.

As for when we'll see the first commercially available Android device, best-guess estimates are "sometime in the second half of this year." What that means in simple English is "in time for the year-end holiday buying season."

A Challenger For Google's Android
As leaders in the wireless industry meet Monday in Barcelona for the annual Mobile World Congress, they will be buzzing about the latest open software platform for mobile handsets. More companies are signing up to support it. A few phone makers will be flashing hot off the bench prototypes. Software developers will be snapping up just-released development kits.

The surprise is, the platform isn't the much-vaunted Open Handset Alliance set up by Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ). Instead, a year-old alliance of companies spearheaded by a group called the LiMo Foundation is horning into the spotlight.

Both are working to create a truly open mobile software platform that standardizes how developers build their applications. Currently applications developers spend large amounts of time rewriting or tuning their applications for a myriad of software environments, including Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) Windows Mobile and Nokia (nyse: NOK - news - people ) Series 60, and beginning last year, some Linux-powered phones. For consumers, an open system could translate into faster access to richer mobile applications like mobile TV and location-based services, and more affordable cell phones.

Google made headlines last year when it unveiled its Open Handset Alliance, a group of 34 technology and mobile companies that also is seeking to develop such an open and free mobile platform. That alliance will have news in Barcelona, too: Several companies, including British chipmaker ARM, are expected to exhibit prototype chips and phones running on the alliance's platform, dubbed Android. Alliance member HTC Corp. has already said it plans to offer an Android phone this year.

But Android has been plagued by reports of glitches since Google released an early version in November. Google recently announced it was tweaking its software developers kit and postponing the deadline for a contest for developers by two weeks, to mid-April. The Android Developer Challenge will provide $10 million in awards for "innovative and useful" Android-based mobile applications.

Meanwhile, LiMo has been steadily chugging away. "[LiMo] is a very practical initiative, but also a deeply philosophical one, based upon the belief that openness in handsets delivers value to consumers," says Morgan Gillis, LiMo's executive director. Inspired by this vision and the desire to exert more control over the operating systems that power their handsets, Motorola (nyse: MOT - news - people ), NEC (nasdaq: NIPNY - news - people ), NTT DoCoMo (nyse: DCM - news - people ), Matsushita, Samsung and Vodafone (nyse: VOD - news - people ) joined forces in January 2007 and set up a LiMo program office in the U.K. to facilitate collaboration.

Universal standards mean they can easily port applications from one device to another. That's roughly the same vision Google has for its Open Handset Alliance. Currently, half of mobile software developments costs go toward ensuring the application will work correctly on different operating systems.

In Barcelona, LiMo will announce nine new members, bringing corporate participation up to 32 companies, including such heavyweights as Motorola, Panasonic and Vodafone. Eighteen handsets from LG, Motorola, NEC, Panasonic and Samsung will use its platform. The lineup includes Motorola's Motorokr and Razr2, as well as the high-end 905 series of phones supported by Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo. LG is not an official LiMo member, but will be showing a prototype "LiMo Phone" at the event. LiMo partner Azingo Mobile announced in late January that it had built a full mobile Linux suite based on LiMo's specifications.

New partners are also showing strong support for LiMo. Orange, the mobile arm of France Telecom (nyse: FTE - news - people ), plans to dedicate part of its 150-person Beijing-based R&D center to working with LiMo, says Yves Maitre, senior vice president of devices. The company, which began working with open platforms in 2002, wants to have 50% of its mobile phones run on open source by 2012, he says.

Similarly another recent member, ACCESS, a global mobile software provider that runs another popular mobile operating system called Garnet, has pledged to oversee future LiMo revisions and work closely with developers. To tap a wide range of developers, LiMo's SDK suite includes native, Java and Web-based SDKs.

LiMo's official position toward Google is cordial. The two groups share three members: Motorola, NTT DoCoMo and Samsung. In November, LiMo responded to Google's announcement of its Open Handset Alliance with a press release that said the two shared "core beliefs" and technology that would allow them to "work together synergistically."

Nevertheless, these new moves bring the two closer into competition. "There could certainly be overlap," says Gillis. He hopes LiMo will attract developers by avoiding the types of delays that have beset the Open Handset Alliance. "For developers, what really matters is having a platform and having handsets available immediately, as that's what will bring their applications to consumers," he notes. LiMo is "completely on schedule" and "extremely well positioned to quickly deliver … new handsets, applications and services," he adds.

How soon American consumers will benefit from LiMo is unclear as no American carriers have yet signed onto it. Gillis says he expects they will soon, citing AT&T (nyse: T - news - people ) and Verizon (nyse: VZ - news - people )'s recent commitment to open their networks to outside phones and services, and the "strong American presence" of LiMo members Motorola, Samsung and LG. Sprint Nextel (nyse: S - news - people ) and T-Mobile, the country's no. 3 and 4 carriers, are Open Handset Alliance members.

LiMo-based phones could be a particular boon for consumers in emerging economies. Orange is proud to be the official operator of the iPhone in France, says Maitre, but the phone's high price limits it to the elite. LiMo will help Orange reach a broader population in places like Africa by enabling it to offer affordable, feature-rich handsets from well-known brands, he says.

Android is believed to be similarly targeting the mass market with low-priced handsets, but it may have a more complicated model that includes subscriptions to Internet access and mobile advertising, backed by Google's technology, says consulting firm Capgemini.

Leading handset maker Nokia may have its own open-source ambitions, judging from its recent acquisition of software developer--and LiMo member--Trolltech.

No matter who prevails, the shift will usher in a second cellular revolution, in which openness, innovation and collaboration between industry leaders and developers will transform the way people use their phones, say advocates.

It may also pump money into the telecom sector in general and encourage investors to take more risk with start-ups. Says Maitre, "That will bring value to everyone."

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