Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Tuesday, 23 September 2008 11:51 UK

Google takes on Apple in mobile

OHA logo, Open Handset Alliance
Google has persauded a few operators to back Android

On 23 September the US arm of operator T-Mobile is expected to whisk the cloth off the first handset running Google's Android operating system for mobiles.

The appearance of the gadget barely 10 months after first unveiling its plans for phones has got many wondering if the search giant will repeat its online success on handsets or if it will suffer a bloody nose.

Certainly some industry pundits do not think the initial launch will have much impact.

Wait and see

"What we expect will happen is that Google will launch very softly, one device, and the user experience on it will noting to compare to the iPhone," said Ilja Laurs, founder of mobile development network GetJar.

"Most likely in the first months the industry will say 'nothing major is here' and it will not have much success at all," he added.

Geoff Blaber, director of devices and software platforms at consulting firm CCS Insight, added: "Google has a long way to go."

He points out that, so far, Google has persuaded few operators to back Android.

"At the moment most operators have taken a 'wait and see' perspective," he said. "Google is going to need the consumers to pull those devices through and build demand."

In Western Europe and the US, which are likely to be the biggest initial markets for Android phones, the operators have a stranglehold on the handsets customers can use and many are wary of Google because of its ambitions in the mobile advertising world.

"Google is not investing this amount of money without seeing a significant business on the back of it," said Mr Blaber.

"A mobile device is the most connected and personal device a user has available to them at this time."

Smartphone market

Google has reaped huge success by picking ads to match what people do when sat at their PC. It is likely to have far more success when matching ads to what people do with their phone when they go online.

That does leave Google in the difficult position of not having many phones, users or success stories to tempt lots of operators to sign up.

At the very least Google should see Android handsets from the operators who are members of the Open Handset Alliance which is backing Android. Operator members of the OHA include China Mobile, KDDI, NTT DoCoMo and Sprint.

But, said Mr Blaber, Google may have picked a good time to enter the smartphone market because it was still a small fraction of all handsets sold.

Currently, he said smartphones made up about 12-13% of the whole handset market.

But, he added, it was clear that the market was about to take off. Partly thanks to another recent entrant to the mobile industry - Apple.

What is clear is that Google has taken a very different approach to the launch of its smartphones than Apple did with the iPhone.

The iPhone has been impossible to ignore since its noisy debut inmid-2007 and Apple strategy for success is built around one phone and one operating system.

By contrast Google has declared its intent for Android to be open so that developers can get at its innards and make of them what they will.

As a result, it hopes, the operating system will appear on many phones and perhaps in many different guises.

But in the mobile world it is not Apple that Google has to best. It is the established players such as Symbian (now under the control of handset giant Nokia), Microsoft as well as a few smaller players such as LiMo and Open Moko.

To compete with all these, said Mr Laurs, Google needs users. But at the moment, he said, it is in the difficult position of not having many users and relatively few applications to show those that do get an Android handset.

While Google has touted the openness of the Android platform as its strength, so far, said Mr Laurs, only the individual and hobby developers have turned up to tinker with it.

"They did not make many efforts to work with big established developers," said Mr Laurs.

That was an oversight, he said, because it was clear that the applications people look for on a phone are those that let them get at social networking sites, watch videos or handle their e-mail.

Long-term strategy

Despite this, he said, Google had made some good choices with Android in that the core technology it picked for applications, Java.

"Already now we see a very mature ecosystem around Java applications," he said. "The fact that they support generic Java applications and already you can find tens of thousands compatible with the Android phone."

Mr Laurs believes that Google will be happy to bide its time and grow its share of the market slowly.

"For them it's a very long-term strategy," he said.

"Two to three to five years from now I believe it will be a strong competitor and will stand very well up against Symbian, Nokia and Microsoft."

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