Late entry into mobile market will hinder Google’s Android ambitions

Not content with being the king of search, Google is looking to the mobile market for its next big hit, with Google-powered smartphones ready for launch.

Android, its open-source mobile platform, developed as part of the new Open Handset Alliance, will be available in the UK this Christmas on an HTC G1 handset, sold exclusively through T-Mobile. Last week, Motorola announced it will launch an Android handset to rival the G1 (MW last week).

The new smartphones will compete head on with the Symbian operating system, owned by Nokia and used across the majority of such devices, as well as the Apple iPhone, which has generated huge consumer interest with its hi-tech specifications.

According to Andy Rubin, senior director of mobile platforms at Google, Android is “the next most important platform in the world” and will “revolutionise” the way mobiles work. Others have compared Google’s likely dominance in the market to Microsoft’s in the personal computer market through its Windows software.

But earlier this month, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer argued that an open-source architecture would not be attractive to phone manufacturers, and predicted that Windows Mobile phones would stay ahead of Blackberry, Apple’s iPhone and Google Android in the market.

“Android is version one… and it looks like version one,” he said. “They’ve got one handset maker, we’ve got 55. They’re available through one operator, we’ve got 175.”

Questions also remain over Android’s late entry into an already crowded market, and barriers such as consumer loyalties to existing platforms.

Kevin Burden, director of technology consultancy ABI Research, says/ “If Android is going to pay off for Google and OHA, subscribers will need to start buying smartphones without fully realising what they just purchased.”

According to TechCrunch statistics, Symbian currently has a 60% share of the mobile platform market. Other rivals include Windows Live Mobile (15%), Research in Motion, whose BlackBerry devices are used by 10% of consumers, and the iPhone, already at 7%.

Symbian has announced its own open-source operating system group known as the Symbian Foundation, formed to compete with OHA. OHA launched November 2007 to develop the Android platform, and the alliance is led by Google, and members include LG, Samsung and eBay.

Open-source innovation Eric Jacobs, a product manager at Symbian, says that an open-source approach only recently became viable. “We are stepping up a gear to ensure we continue to increase the rate of innovation in an ever challenging market.”

However, others say the strength and reputation of the Google brand will make Android easier to sell to both business and consumers.

Strategy Analytics executive director Chris Ambrosio says: “Google has the brand power to make a big impact at launch. It should be able to compete with other competitors in the market such as Microsoft and Symbian, as long as it shows real worth to users.”

In marketing terms, the launch of Android may also open a platform which brands have been hesitant to exploit. Last month, a survey by operator O2 predicted that spend in mobile marketing – ads designed for mobile platforms – was set to rise 150% in five years.

Daniel Rosen, managing director of AKQA Mobile, says: “The Android platform presents a mixed opportunity. The cost and time to deploy applications is greatly reduced, which helps to justify platform development, but ‘reach’ is a key barometer if it is to compete with the likes of Apple and Symbian.”

Few doubt Google aims to shake up the mobile market, and with partners including T-Mobile and Motorola it seems to have made a good start. Bringing the success of its search engine to the mobile industry, however, will be a huge challenge.

Joe Fernandez

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