Thursday, February 28, 2008

Apple's iPhone paves the way for Android

As a telecoms commentator, I always find it's important to get things wrong occasionally. After all, if you were always right it probably just means you've been sitting on the fence or that you write a boring, predictable column. So I'm happy to report that I'm changing my position on both Apple's iPhone and Google's Android mobile platform.

Let me recap. Just before Apple unleashed its iPhone on a suspecting world, I made a bold statement that it would fail, at least in its first incarnation. Perhaps I should have just said I won't be buying one, because I don't like its closed nature and because it lacks 3G. But thanks to the hackers, we now know that there are hundreds of thousands of people around Asia that are willing to snap up an iPhone and, more importantly, they're loving it.

One grey vendor friend of mine that sells unlocked iPhones in both Bangkok and Singapore can't get enough of them to satisfy demand. The other day he managed to get a shipment, told a few friends via email and they were snapped up within the hour. Another friend who had managed to buy one earlier was an instant fan -- and not just because it made him the centre of attention everywhere he dragged it out. It was also because, finally, someone had made the mobile Internet usable. That alone -- making web sites easily viewable on a mobile screen -- should be enough to cement Apple's place in mobile history.

Another interesting stat I came across: Google is apparently getting 50 times more search requests from iPhones than any other mobile handset. That stat, according to the Financial Times, was so extraordinary that Google first thought it had made an error with its data. It hadn't and it just shows how much more people will use the mobile Internet if you make it easier for them.

Which is where Google steps in. There's no doubt that one of the keys to the search giant's success is the way it makes its services easy to use. Presumably, it will bring that talent to its mobile phone efforts. But more importantly, it can harness the immense power and developer base of the open source movement. Already that's happening, with many local software promotion boards across Asia getting behind it and Google offering significant prizes for developers through competitions.

To date, the two dominant smartphone operating systems -- Windows Mobile and Symbian/System 60 -- have not exactly attracted a fanatical user base. Get the open source community behind a mobile OS, however, and that's exactly what you'll have: a growing and fanatical base of users and developers. And as we have seen with Apple, fanaticism can go a long way.

In a recent research note by Saugatuck Technology, they pointed out that Google's Android and other Linux-based mobile initiatives, notably LiMo, are potentially disruptive influences on the mobile space. The main reasons cited were scalability and portability, affordability and maturity. Another significant point was the ability to work with other open software that can be delivered as a service, either from telecom providers or from pure-play SaaS vendors.

In short, Android (and LiMo) have "the ability (and promise) of becoming game-changing influences – and within a very short time," the research house stated.

If the introduction of the iPhone is any guide, users of mobile devices and services are looking for ease of use and better offerings than they have had in the past. Which is why I (now) think that Google's Android also has a great chance of following the iPhone and succeeding. -- Geoff Long

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