Mountain View (CA) - Developing Android, creating an ecosystem around the mobile platform and cloning the iPhone’s integrated experience may have turned out to be much more difficult than Google previously thought. Google is losing time as it tries to co-ordinate variables it cannot control, such as carriers, handset makers and developers. The first Android handsets are now believed to be delayed into early next year, which means that Google and vendors will miss out on the lucrative Christmas season. Will Android’s delay buy Apple more time and help the company to turn iPhone 3G into the only must-have mobile phone this summer? The answer is yes.
According to a Wall Street Journal article published earlier today, Google now believes that the platform may not be ready until fourth quarter, or even early 2009. Although Google denied that the Android launch date is slipping, the company confirmed it’s facing unexpected challenges. Google’s mobile platforms director Andy Rubin suggests that lobbying for new features by its partners is causing the delay: "This is where the pain happens. We are very, very close," Rubin said. Citing "people familiar with the situation", the WSJ claims that developers found that developing Android applications is more difficult than they expected. Part of the problem seems to be that Google is continuously applying changes to the Android software.
Carriers face even bigger problems since they have to integrate Android operating system and Android applications into their own network services. AT&T, Apple’s exclusive iPhone 3G distributor in the US, still hasn’t decided whether it will support Android phone at all. T-Mobile is believed to deliver Android handsets in the fourth quarter of this year. Sprint Nextel said it will not offer Android devices this year. Sprint may even delay Android until it deploys its next-generation network, which is now handled by a range of companies. It is generally believed that the carrier would rather have Android as a basis for its own branded service than simply offer Android handsets with the default built-in Google features.
International carriers are also feeling pressure. China Mobile, the largest carrier in the world, is expected to shift its planned third quarter Android introduction to early 2009. The carrier ran into difficulties integrating the phone with its branded service. Additionally, a partner that develops Android handset for China Mobile was reported having problems translating the Android software and supporting the Chinese character set.
But handset makers may be facing more difficulties than anyone since they have to integrate the beta Android software with their hardware in a way that the handset meets service specifications set by carriers. The WSJ claims that these difficulties are building over a myriad of smaller handset makers that intend to manufacture branded Android handsets for carriers.
A lack of vertical integration seems to be the major problem the Android platform is facing at this time: Google makes the software platform, handset makers deliver the hardware and carriers have to integrate both the hardware and software to work with their infrastructure. In a sharp contrast, Apple’s vertical integration approach proved a unique advantage over competitors so far since Apple engineers the handset, the operating system as well as the default applications.
A summer slam dunk for the iPhone 3G
There is little doubt that Android will mature and gain momentum over time. But these rather unexpected delays have opened much bigger window of opportunity for the iPhone 3G, which is scheduled to hit stores on July 11. Sony Ericsson’s Xperia X1, characterized as a potential iPhone-killer, is also postponed until the fourth quarter. This leaves Samsung’s Instinct as the only viable iPhone challenger this summer. Samsung launched an interesting Instinct campaign which targets the weaknesses of the first-gen iPhone. Compared to the iPhone 3G, live TV over the air is the only Instinct advantage left over the iPhone 3G. Instinct is now available for $129 with a two-year Sprint service contract.
With virtually no serious competitor available to challenge the iPhone 3G’s dominance at the moment in sight, Apple could have an easy game making the device this summer’s and fall’s must-have handset. By the time Android hits the market, Apple could have an installed user base of at least 10 million and hundreds, if not thousands, of third-party developers.
Google originally planned that the first mobile phones powered by its Android software will hit the market by the second half of the year. Since the company announced it plans to create a new mobile phone software platform in November, it stirred enthusiasm among developers, users and media outlets. To gain support for the new platform in an already crowded and fragmented mobile phone space, Google assembled 30 industry heavy-weights around the Open Handset Alliance. Apple, Microsoft and Nokia, however, did not join the alliance as they are pursuing their respective iPhone, Windows Mobile and Symbian software platforms.
Google recently showcased new Android features at the Google I/O conference earlier this month. Fancy visuals and interesting user interface innovations in some areas even surpass the current iPhone software. Support for Google’s cloud services is also tightly integrated throughout Android, especially in its Maps application. The web browsing experience is close to iPhone’s Safari browser since both platforms use the WebKit open source rendering engine. Android is also rumored to have an application store that will enable users to browse, download and purchase third-party applications over the air, replicating iPhone’s App Store feature that will come as part of the upcoming iPhone 2.0 firmware update.