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Is Android the new Windows?

business Updated: Aug 24, 2011 16:39 IST
Vivek Sinha
Vivek Sinha
Hindustan Times
Vivek Sinha

"Never say never." That's what Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google told HT at Tokyo in July when asked whether his software-led Internet company will get into manufacture of mobile hardware such as smartphones and tablet PCs.

Earlier this week, when the search giant announced its $12.5-billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility, the penny fell into place.

Not just hardware design facilities, the Motorola buy gives Google access to 17,000 patents in the business as it moves to change the world with the power of Android, its mobile software platform that is challenging the incumbency of Apple's iOS, Nokia's Symbian and Microsoft Windows.

Android is at the heart of patent litigation filed by rivals Microsoft, Apple and Oracle in a new global war that involves the entrenched leaders fighting tooth and nail because Google is changing the rules.

Android, which now powers 135 million active devices across the world after its 2008 launch, commands a 46% market share in platforms. Symbian has slipped to 22%, iOS 18.2% and Research In Motion (maker of BlackBerry) is at 12%. Windows, a laggard in mobiles and now a Nokia partner, is at 1.6%.

"Android came in when at a time when the market was changing and was able to completely address the market," said Anshul Gupta, principal research analyst at industry monitor Gartner.

Newer, trendier versions of the Android platform are helping dozens of manufacturers come up with handsets and tablets in various shapes, sizes and features because Google has created a new web of partnerships involving small manufacturers who, like Lilliputians, are tying down the likes of Nokia.

Look hard, and the mobile handset revolution is a lot similar to the 1980s and 1990s, when Microsoft and IBM, teaming up with dozens of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) ushered in the personal computer revolution.

In the 1990s, mobility belonged to Nokia, which, like the desktop Macs in the early 1980s, powered ahead with proprietary machines and software.

Today, you have Indian brands like Micromax, Lava and Lemon making Android handsets, largely using design and marketing skills because Google has taken away much of the software headaches in a business in which software and applications (which enable mail, chat, music and other content) are critical.

Hardware making is increasingly in Taiwan or China, where contract manufacturers can help brands move fast at low cost. Apart from new brands in low-end markets, Android is also a favourite for the likes of Korean giants Samsung and LG.

Apple's iPhone and iPad have blazed a trail for touchscreen-based devices in the age of 3G mobility and high-bandwidth that enables interactive applications, games and video-viewing on the go . But taking this experience to hundreds of millions of people seems increasingly an Android job.

"After Apple's iOS, Android offered the best experience on touch devices," said Gartner's Gupta.

Android's two big plus points: it is free and it is flexible.

Nokia and RIM platforms are proprietary and do not allow hardware makers to tweak or modify them.

"Manufacturers make their own choices. They want to add more customisation, have their own UI (user interface)," said John Lagerling, director of global partnerships, Android.

Thanks to this, Android has surged ahead, but patent suits that add risks to the business.

Now, in the emerging scenario, Google becomes a direct competitor with the likes of Samsung, LG, HTC, Micromax, Spice and Lava, whereas thus far, it was a benign partner.

Google has asserted that the Motorola business will be a separate unit and Google's relations with existing hardware vendors remain unaltered. But industry watchers say partners-turned-rivals may yet be a bit cagey.

But this apart, there is little doubt that Android is on your handtop what Windows was on the desktop in the 1990s.