Handset makers belie Google's Android bullishness

Caroline Gabriel/Rethink Wireless
22 Apr 2009

Google CEO Eric Schmidt pinned high hopes on Android as the search giant reported slowing revenues and sought to calm investor jitters. \'Overall, it looks like Android is going to have a very, very strong year,\' he said during the results conference call. However, he failed to offer specific sales figures or targets for Google\'s mobile activities, and it remains unclear where exactly all this success is going to come from, with Sony Ericsson and Motorola both cautious on timescales for their Android launches.

As if the market weren\'t frustrated enough with the uncertainty about the shipment of another Linux-based smartphone, Palm Pre, Sony Ericsson is now trying to manage expectations about the release of its first Android models, which should be a much needed boost to the venture\'s flagging fortunes. CEO Hideki Komiyama told news agency Reuters: \'It does require a lot of evaluation, as well as a lot of testing, a lot of acceptance from a consumer viewpoint, and there is still some time to go.\'

Komiyama\'s comments highlight two important challenges for Android that may slow down initial uptake. One, the sheer difficulty of getting a brand new handset platform market-ready, on multiple devices, to the satisfaction of a huge number of network operators. Google has always had hugely ambitious timelines for this, even though it is competing with systems like Symbian that have been developing for years, and has often been accused of underestimating the complexity of getting each product certified by operators - one issue that was reported to have delayed a launched planned for 2008 at China Mobile.

Two, there is the inevitable downside of open standards, the problems for vendors in creating competitive edge. \'Our focus is on how can we differentiate from the competitors using the same operating system,\' Komiyama said. His firm will focus on the user experience and interface, and its Xperia X1 Windows phone has already demonstrated what it can do in this respect - but its rivals will be taking a similar approach, and cutting edge will be hard and expensive to achieve.

Nevertheless, HTC\'s second Android phone, Magic, is about to ship at Vodafone and T-Mobile USA, and Samsung plans a launch in mid-year. \'There are announcements happening between now and the end of the year that are quite significant from operators and new hardware partners in the Android space, which I won\'t pre-announce except to say that they really do fulfil much of the vision that we laid out more than a year ago,\' Schmidt said. But of course, market leader Nokia will not support Android and LG has put its primary focus on Windows, making launches from the rest of the top five - Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Motorola (also hazy on timescales for its make-or-break Android plan) critical to gaining critical mass in the near future.

The complexity of the handset development process will explain the accelerated efforts to put Android on other types of devices, including set-top boxes and netbooks.

Google reported first quarter net income of $1.42bn, an 8% year-on-year increase, and beating Wall Street forecasts partly because of a recent cost cutting program. Revenue rose just 6% to $5.51bn, and was also down 3% on the fourth quarter of 2008, Google\'s first quarter-on-quarter decline since it went public five years ago. The main culprit was the cut in online advertising spend. \'No company is recession-proof,\' Schmidt said.

Rethink Wireless

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