First came the fervent and persistent rumours of a Google mobile phone.
Then, just six short weeks ago, the search supremo (and just-about-everything-else-online supremo) announced there would not be a ‘Google phone’ per se, but rather dozens of them from a raft of mobile manufacturers, and all built on an open Linux-based mobile phone platform named Android.
Now things are picking up steam, with Gizmodo posting a snap of one of the rumoured score of prototype phones circulating around the Googleplex and in the r&d labs of the mobile makers.
The device looks very much like it’s been cobbled together from existing chassis designs by Taiwan’s HTC, which is responsible for a estimated 80% of the world’s Windows Mobile smartphones (not just under its own brand but through badge-engineering for dozens of carriers and exclusive OEM/ODM contracts with several tech companies).
(HTC is also one of the leading partners in the Open Handset Alliance, which Google created as a hothouse for Android — the consortium’s roster of 34 tech companies also includes handset makers Samsung, Motorola and LG.)
And yes, this big drab-looking device is dog ugly – but this isn’t a slick made-for-media concept phone, it’s merely a functional prototype on which the developers and engineers can tinker (and we all know that as rule, they’re not big on elegant design).Right now, it’s what sits inside the phone that is most important. You can bet that if Google’s handset partners lift the covers on their Android phones during the Mobile World Congress expo, which kicks off on February 11th in Barcelona – or if Google itself trots out a flock of phones to impress this annual powerhouse gathering of the global mobile industry (the company has booked two stands on the expo floor) – that these will be shiny snazzy models endowed with a very high ‘cool’ factor.
None the less, they’ll still be concept models to capture and ignite the attention of the market, the media and the public at large. Android isn’t expected to hit 1.0 stage until the second half of 2008, so right now it’s still a work in progress.
What we already now about Android is that its foundation is the Linux 2.6 kernel, onto which Google has assembled sufficient components to create a phone-centric OS.
With a small icon selection strip running across the foot of the screen the UI looks somewhat similar to that of prototype mobile internet devices from Intel’s ultra-mobile platform, as both are designed with very small screens in mind.
In that regard, Android’s interface also takes some cues from the Sidekick and Hiptop family of devices. This is not surprising, considering that the one of the founders of Android (which Google acquired in July 2005) is Andy Rubin, who also founded Danger, the company behind the Sidekick/Hiptop line. Rubin now leads the Android team.
A demo of Android posted on YouTube’s Android Developer Channel shows the top level UI menu, in which the user scrolls horizontally through a carousel of icons to launch the relevant application. However, later iterations could spawn limited sub-menus, so that a generic mail icon could contains the selections for email and SMS/MMS messaging, or a ‘chat’ icon could include SMS/MMS plus the instant message client.
The inbuilt browser is based on the Apple-developed WebKit open source project which underpins the iPhone’s impressive implementation of Safari. As a result, Web pages viewed on Android appear with the same fidelity as if viewed on a full-blown desktop client.
The demo also shows an innovative ‘visual history’ that represents recently-visited sites not as a test list but a series of thumbnail images of the actual pages you viewed.
Android also appears capable of some sweet graphics, with Open GL software to provide basic 3D capabilities out of the box plus hardware acceleration if the device is fitted with a graphics processor chip.
The YouTube video showcases smooth rendering and manipulation of a ‘virtual Earth’ globe in Android’s world time applet, then hammers home the point with a quick demo of Quake running on Android. And with NVIDIA having also signed up to the Open Handset Alliance, you can bet that Android’s graphics capabilities will come in for plenty of attention.
Google Maps on the move: as you’d expect, Android plays nicely with all Google services such as Google MapsGoogle Maps on the move: as you’d expect, Android plays nicely with all Google services such as Google Maps
Central to the Android architecture is the SQL Lite database engine, which is made available to all applications – it could also be worth noting that SQL Lite is used for Google Gears, the offline implementation of online-only Web apps.
While open source provides the heart of Android, its brain is a surprisingly modest ARM 9-series processor running at 200MHz. By way of comparison, the BlackBerry Pearl and Curve run a 312MHz processor, Nokia’s flagship smartphones hover around 300-350MHz, the Motorola RAZR2 beefs up with a 500MHZ chip while the iPhone packs a 620MHz engine.
The ARM processor is also the x86 of the mobile phone landscape, being used by most mobile makers, so it makes perfect sense for the OHA to set this as the processing platform for Android.
However, given that Intel is a member of the OHA and in June 2006 offloaded its own ARM-based XScale PXA silicon to Marvell (also an OHA signatory), we expect Intel will push to put its forthcoming Menlow 2008 and Moorestown 2010 mobile device platforms on the Android menu.While designed from the ground up for small low-power devices, both run Intel’s IA architecture and thus come with an army of developers primed to churn out software. The OHA would be unlikely to axe ARM, but could easily broaden the Android spec to include Intel’s silicon would provide manufacturers with a choice of chips.
But that’s all in the future, and right now the job is getting to Android 1.0. Central to that is the Android software development kit, which allows programmers to start coding.
Google has added a small incentive: a cool US$10m in prize-money for the best Android apps!