The Google Android party has begun

Two years after Google announced Android, phone manufacturers are launching new devices sporting the mobile operating system and mobile operators are lining up to sell them.

Samsung announced its second Google Android Phone, the Samsung Moment at the CTIA Fall Show. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

SAN DIEGO--After two years of waiting, Google Android phones are finally hitting the market en masse.

In the past couple of months, nine devices using Google's mobile operating system have been announced, including the Motorola Cliq, which goes on sale in November, and the new Samsung Moment , which was announced Wednesday at the CTIA Fall 2009 trade show here. The pipeline is full of more Android devices, some of which have been confirmed and some that are still rumored to be in development.

"We are seeing a lot of interest in Android here," Kim Titus, a spokesman for Samsung, said Wednesday at the CTIA trade show, where the company is showing off its two Google Android handsets--the Samsung Moment and the Samsung Behold II . "I think these devices have an opportunity to become strong cross-over devices appealing both to business customers as well as to consumers and prosumers."

U.S. wireless operators are also jumping on the Google Android bandwagon. So far, T-Mobile USA, the smallest of the four nationwide carriers, has been the only U.S. wireless operator to offer Android devices. Once the Motorola Cliq and the Samsung Bold II launch, T-Mobile will be offering four different Google Android devices on its network.

But T-Mobile won't be the only Android carrier in the U.S. for much longer. Starting next week, Sprint Nextel will introduce its first Android phone, the HTC Hero . And a couple of weeks later on November 1, it will begin selling the newly announced Samsung Moment.

Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest wireless operator, will also be getting two new Google Android phones in the coming weeks . Verizon executives wouldn't provide specifics about the devices, but one of the devices is expected to be from Motorola. Verizon and Google said Tuesday that they will be working closely to introduce new Google Android phones.

Even AT&T, the second largest wireless provider in the U.S. and the exclusive U.S. carrier for the iPhone, is expected to have a Google Android phone soon. On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published a report stating that AT&T will be offering Dell's soon-to-be announced Google Android phone .

Device makers see Android as their biggest hope to compete against Apple's iPhone and Research in Motion's BlackBerry devices in the smartphone market. Both Apple and RIM develop their own software that is proprietary to their homegrown hardware.

The Samsung Moment up close at the CTIA Fall 2009 Show. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Like the Google Android operating system, Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform can also be used on different hardware. But as Microsoft struggles to keep pace with the rapidly changing mobile market, some device makers, such as Motorola, are gravitating toward Android. This is not to say that Microsoft is out of the game. In fact, the company just announced Windows Mobile 6.5 this week at CTIA , but experts, such as CNET's own Bonnie Cha, believe the upgrade is incremental with a bigger overhaul of the software not expected until next year.

Meanwhile, momentum is growing for Google Android phones.

Google unveiled its Android open development operating system in the fall of 2007. It took a year before the first Android phone, the HTC G1 sold by T-Mobile , was introduced. Many industry watchers had expected other handset makers to start announcing their own Android devices in February 2009 at the GSMA World Congress trade show in Barcelona. But the show came and went with few mentions of Android .

Later that spring, people were expecting Android announcements at the CTIA's spring trade show in Las Vegas. But device makers kept mum. In June, T-Mobile USA and HTC introduced the second Android handset into the U.S. market, the MyTouch. This phone was supposed to be a more refined version of the G1 and was designed to appeal to the mainstream wireless consumer.

Now as Android is about to hit its second birthday, the much anticipated flood of Android device announcements is beginning. Manufacturers, such as Samsung, Motorola, LG and HTC are announcing multiple Google Android devices. Motorola's co-CEO Sanjay Jha said this week that he expects his company to introduce "multiple tens of products" using the Android operating system.

Even phone makers Sony Ericsson and Nokia, which historically have built phones using the Symbian operating system, are rumored to be working on Android handsets. The operating system has even appealed to companies not traditionally in the cell phone business, such as laptop makers Lenovo and Dell and Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei .

While Google Android may give device makers, such as Samsung and Motorola, a way to compete with the iPhone, it could be difficult for them to differentiate their products. So far, the Android devices that have been announced look very similar. All of them sport a touch screen that takes much of the face of the phone. Some, like the Motorola Cliq and the Samsung Moment, also have QWERTY keypads that slides out for consumers who like the feel of real keys.

Samsung's Titus said there are subtle differences in the hardware. For example, the Samsung Moment uses a bright OLED screen that makes images sharper and colors more vibrant. The screen is also designed to be more energy efficient. And the Moment uses much faster processors that most other cell phones. But he conceded that because all the devices use a touch screen that they look very much alike.

"When you have a screen that takes up so much of the landscape, it's not surprising that they look somewhat similar," he said.

Since the Android platform is completely open, the real customization will likely be software based. For example, the Samsung Moment, which will be sold on Sprint's network, comes preloaded with applications and features specific to Sprint's network. These applications include Sprint's navigation service and applications for NFL and Nascar, two organizations which have special relationships with Sprint.

Motorola has also customized the user interface for its Cliq phone and it has introduced Motoblur, a social-networking-optimized version of the user interface. Motorola executives told developers at its conference this week that it expects some but not all of its new Android phones to come with Motoblur installed.

While handset makers and wireless operators may be tempted to further customize the Android software, doing so is risky since the promise of an operating system such as Android is to provide developers with an easy and open way to develop applications that can be downloaded across multiple devices.

So far developers have already created more than 10,000 applications for Google Android devices. These apps can be accessed through the Google Android Market. Big developers, such as Facebook, have already begun developing Android specific applications. And at its developer conference, Motorola announced a series of new apps available for the new Cliq, including Accuweather, the Barnes & Noble eReader, MySpace, and QuickOffice, the company said.

But as new devices are introduced on different carrier networks, it will be interesting to see if these applications in the Android Market will work across all the different hardware. If they do, they could drive more Android device development, which could lead to the Android mobile platform actually living up to the hype that was promised nearly two years ago. And if they don't, then Android will likely become just another mobile operating system that further fragments the market.

 

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