I'll give Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) credit where it's due: Unlike Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) , which is taking its sweet old time in developing the hardware, software, and app base needed to present a rival platform that can slow down Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) momentum, Google understands that time is of the essence. Wait too long, and the iPhone's "snowball effect" of growing mindshare, customer loyalty, and app support will start to look like an avalanche that will bury any would-be competitor in the booming world of consumer smartphones.
Android phones galore
It's for this reason that I think Google has been so driven in recent months to flood the smartphone market with Android hardware. The most high-profile launches have definitely been Motorola's (NYSE: MOT ) Droid and Google's recently announced Nexus One, but we've also seen HTC's MyTouch, Hero/G2, and Tattoo phones hit the shelves, not to mention Samsung's Galaxy and Moment phones, and Motorola's CLIQ. Meanwhile, Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) and LG have launched Android phones in China, and North American models are set to arrive soon. And let's not forget Sony Ericsson's Xperia X10, which, with its OLED display and 1 gigahertz Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM ) Snapdragon processor, should sport a feature set competitive with the Nexus One when it arrives.
This torrent of Android devices hitting the market and making news has given the platform a major PR boost and made many consumers think of it as an up-and-coming competitor to the iPhone. There might be no better evidence than a survey conducted by Changewave Research in December, which showed that the percentage of future smartphone buyers who would prefer to have Android had risen to 21% -- up from a mere 6% in September. The percentage preferring the iPhone's OS, meanwhile, had fallen to 28% from 32%, and those preferring Research In Motion's (Nasdaq: RIMM ) Blackberry OS had ticked up slightly, to 18%.
Factor in how the surge in hardware and hype has led the number of Android apps to grow to more than 22,000 today from around 6,000 near the beginning of July. That's still well behind the 100,000-plus apps in the iTunes App Store, but that growth is nothing to scoff at, so it's easy to see Android as having arrived as the Joe Frazier to the iPhone's Muhammad Ali.
What Google still needs to get right
But as Apple and Research In Motion have long understood, having a great smartphone platform isn't just about producing compelling hardware and software. It's about creating a great end-to-end user experience in which hardware, software, and services are seamlessly integrated. And for Google to do that, it's going to have to get some details right.
What kind of details? Here are three that it might want to start with:
1. Ensuring app compatibility between different Android devices. With Android models sporting different versions of the operating system, some developers have complained about their apps not working properly on certain devices. Apple, on the other hand, has done a pretty good job of guaranteeing compatibility between its apps and every iPhone or iPod Touch model.
2. Developing quality PC software to connect Android devices to. Apple gives its users iTunes to back up their devices, sync their media files, and shop for media and apps. Google has nothing that compares, even if you factor in third-party software that often comes with a price tag.
3. Encouraging a decent base of accessories for Android phones. Every iPhone model has a nearly identical form and design; and save for its thinner build and lack of a camera, the iPod Touch looks pretty much the same. This makes it easier for accessory manufacturers to produce hardware that will work over a huge installed base of devices. Android accessories can't hope to have that level of compatibility, because the platform relies on so many different phone manufacturers, but Google needs to work with individual manufacturers to ensure a level of accessory compatibility between their different hardware models.
I'm not quite as pessimistic about Android's future as my colleague Rick Aristotle Munarriz appears to be. While Apple is still in the catbird's seat, Google has shown that it has the engineering savvy, partner support, and sense of urgency to give the iPhone a run for its money. But if Google has paid any attention to what has made Apple successful, it'll realize that Android still has some big weaknesses it needs to address.