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BW Businessworld

Android On The March

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Paranoid Android," says my colleague's Google Talk status. "Schizoid Android," echoes my own. There are those around who might wonder at the state of our mental health, but most know we are just showing off our new Google Android-based smartphones. In both cases, it's the Samsung Galaxy S, current smartphone sizzler in the Indian market, along with the HTC Desire.

If you had asked me a few months ago, Android wouldn't have been on my radar at all. I'm not an Apple fan as such, but I have used (and successfully killed) the whole gamut of iPods ever since they launched, and the natural choice when I had to replace my ageing phone would have been the iPhone 4. Were it not for the mind-boggling rumoured price in India. That, and the fact that the Galaxy S has looks every bit as good if not better, seduced me into converting to Android. I felt it was time to experience the Android universe. And I'm rather glad I did.

As it happens, several million others are buying Android phones, so much so that this last quarter Android sales outpaced iPhone sales, according to at least three separate surveys. That couldn't have improved Steve Jobs' temper much. As it is, in an epic rant, he said the whole Android apps scenario was a fragmented mess and that it was easy enough to call Google open and Apple closed, but the truth was that Apple's products just worked.

But the openness, even if it means confusion, occasional sub-quality apps or performance issues, is strongly valued by developers and customers. Anyone can develop for the Android market. And that's how about 50 per cent of the Android apps are free. The other 50 per cent don't seem to cost much anyway, from what I can see via my phone, which already has five screenfuls of apps. If you want a feature, just go to the apps store and get it. The freedom to customise is huge.

Savvy users upgrade the operating system and "root" their phones to reconfigure them from scratch.

Apple's approach is different. The other day, I was using a voice recording app on my Galaxy and was getting annoyed at its lack of a proper exit button. I contacted the developer (via the app's feedback) and suggested he modify. The next day, it was updated, sporting a new exit button. That's not something you would ever be able to do with Apple. But Apple fans would say you wouldn't need to. Apple tightly (and according to Jobs, rightly) controls everything that goes on to a device so you can be sure what you get is tested and working. That's something Apple fans really value, specially when they don't necessarily want to go tinkering with a product's basic system and features. One can see their point, but it isn't like nothing is ever wrong with iPods and iPhones — remember my five dead Pods.

For cellphone buyers, it's not just about the freedom to customise and add to the phone, but also that big mobile companies have put their might behind Android and are releasing new handsets by the dozen. A buyer walking into a mobile store now will no longer have to ask for an Android phone, these will be among the options presented anyway. HTC, Samsung, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have been churning out new handsets spanning the whole range from cheap and functional to sophisticated smartphones. Everyone is in little doubt that Android phones will soon outsell iPhones; even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak agrees to that, but says it will be a matter of quantity over quality.

To be sure, Android phones are not without their problems. Always-on Google functions such as search, navigation, syncing and updating bring the battery to its last gasp of breath in a short time. Touchscreen, specially the ones with AMOLED display, makes it drain even faster. My phone had this issue, but I have countered it by downloading a one-button widget to go offline when I want. Also an app-killer app that stops selected apps from working all the time. However, since anyone can develop, you're not necessarily going to get top quality all the time. Then, it's geeks who are happier with Android phones and know how to use them to the hilt. The version of Android is upgradeable on many, but not all, phones and when used in older versions isn't a slick experience. This is specially so for low-end phones. And it causes no end of fragmentation in the market.

But with a lot of firms backing Android, the landscape has every chance of developing. Google has just said Near Field Communication technology will help next version Android phones double up as credit cards. Qualcom is bringing dual-core processors to Android phones. I'm thinking Android doesn't have to be paranoid at all.

The author is editorial director at Mindworks Global Media Services.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 06-12-2010)