Monday, January 5, 2009

2009 Prediction: Android Takes Off

I've been watching Google's Android project with interest to see if (unlike so many other Google projects) it will actually amount to something. It's still very early in the game, but everything I'm seeing tells me that Android is about to become one of the top stories in tech for 2009. Here are some of the dots I'm connecting - let me know if you see a different pattern than I do in this data:
  • Successful launch of T-Mobile G1 - Despite what most reviewers describe as pretty clunky hardware, T-Mobile shipped an estimated 1MM G1's (the first-ever Android-powered mobile handset) in 4Q08. Hardware aside, software reviews of the first-rev Android operating system were positive to glowing.

  • First "indie" Android phone appears - Just weeks after T-Mobile started accepting orders for the G1, Kogan (an Australian company) announced the first "unlocked" Android phone, the Agora. To me this was early evidence that Android (the only free, open source smartphone operating system) will spur device innovation of a quality sufficient to challenge Apple and RIM.

  • Mobile heavyweights sign on to Open Handset Alliance - Not long after the Kogan announcement, 14 new members (including Toshiba, Sony Ericsson and Vodafone) piled into this Android working group, signaling a shift toward market acceptance of the platform by the wireless establishment.

  • VentureBeat ports Android to a netbook (in about 4 hours) - Google talks about Android as a smartphone OS, but this non-commercial demo shows how readily the OS can be adapted to the fastest-growing segment of the PC market. And as ZDNet points out in a related story, Google plans to retain 30% of all revenues from Android Market app sales, a revenue line that could get big fast if Android takes off.
Of course the leading indicator for any Android prediction is the runaway success of Apple's iPhone and App Store. Apple has built an amazing product and created a powerful ecosystem of independent developers, and I'm not sure any device will ever match the seamless and elegant experience of the iPhone. But Apple's strategy of vertical integration, unilateral control and premium pricing leave a gaping hole in the market for Google's Android strategy to run right through.

Consumers around the world love the smartphone experience, but only the very top slice of the market can afford Apple's version of that dream. In the great depression of 2009-10, Google's free, open and device-agnostic (i.e., Netbook-friendly) offering looks like a very smart bet indeed.