I've long sung the praises of Android, Google's open-source mobile operating system. It gives you everything you'd want in a smartphone—a stylish, intuitive interface plus great programs for e-mail, the Web, and keeping your life organized. Indeed, on paper, Android looks like the best mobile OS you can buy. It packs more features and is more flexible than the BlackBerry or Windows Mobile, and because it works on lots of different phones (and even some computers), it promises to be more widely available than the Palm Pre. And how does Android stack up against Apple's iPhone? In theory, very well. The iPhone is packed with restrictions and complexities —Apple and AT&T make developers run through unnecessary hoops to get their software on the phone. Android, meanwhile, offers a wide-open platform for developers to create add-on programs, a system that you'd expect would lead to a vast, unmatched library of apps for Android phones.
But all of that's true only in theory. In reality, the iPhone and BlackBerry are dominating the sales charts. According to the research firm Canalys, the iPhone now commands nearly 14 percent of smartphone sales and BlackBerry about 21 percent. Android has only 3 percent. You could argue that's not so bad—after all, the first Android phone was launched just last fall, more than a year after the first iPhone hit the market. Plus, lots of new Android devices are on the way, so the platform is bound to attract more users. But it seems unlikely that Google's mobile market share will grow as quickly as the iPhone's—according to Canalys, iPhone usage has shot up by more than 600 percent in the last year.
Android doesn't just trail Apple in sales. The platform also lacks what you might call the iPhone's "mindshare." Even though it's far friendlier to developers, Android has failed to attract anywhere near the number of apps now clogging the iPhone. It's also just not very cool. Apple's ubiquitous marketing and unmatched industrial design have turned the iPhone into a must-have fashion accessory. Android? It's fallen into the same trap as the SanDisk Sansa, Creative Zen, the Zune, and any number of other music players—devices that are cheaper and technically every bit as capable as Apple's iPod but that no one would ever put on his Christmas list.
What, exactly, is plaguing Google's mobile OS? Can it be saved? Blogger John Gruber recently took on this question in an intelligent essay that I hope the folks at Google read carefully. Gruber argues that Google went wrong by giving handset manufacturers and carriers a great deal of control over the design and marketing of Android phones. There is no idealized "Google phone"—instead, Android devices get names like the T-Mobile G1 or the myTouch 3G, and each is marketed separately and comes with its own distinct capabilities and shortcomings. Outside handset manufacturers lack ambition—none of them even seems to be trying to match the capabilities of the iPhone, let alone to knock us down with features that far surpass those of Apple's device. The iPhone is two years old, Gruber points out. What was exciting about it is now common. A smart handset manufacturer could build a top-of-the-line Android device that outshines Apple's phone in at least a few areas—better battery life, a much better Web browser, a brighter or bigger screen, faster or more functional controls ... something that might help Android inspire gadget lust. But so far, that's not happening.
Killer Apps: Wolfenstein 3-D