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Google Android prototypes debut at MWC

ARM is one of several companies showing off a mobile phone prototype running Google's Android software.

BARCELONA, Spain--Prototypes of the first mobile handsets using Google's Android software debuted at the GSMA's Mobile World Congress here on Monday, and I got a sneak peek at a demonstration.

Google launched Android, an open development platform in November. Phones sporting the Android software are expected out later this year. Google also announced the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of 34 handset manufacturers, carriers and chipmakers that have said they plan to support Android products and services.

I was one of several journalists to get a private demonstration of Android at the ARM Holdings booth here at the show. CNET News.com reported last week that ARM was planning to show off a prototype.

ARM's technology is found at the heart of almost every mobile phone on the planet. The company designs the processor cores that companies like Texas Instruments, Samsung, and Marvell manufacture into chips that run cell phones and smartphones.

ARM's Android
A look at Android at the ARM booth here at MWC in Barcelona. Marguerite Reardon/CNET News.com

ARM has the Android software running on a prototype device using the ARM9 processor technology, which is already two generations old. The mocked-up handset resembled a full QWERTY keyboard smartphone, like Research in Motion's BlackBerry. But Bob Morris, director of platform solutions for ARM, said the ARM9 technology used on the demonstration prototype is actually used on lower-end handsets sold to the mass market, which means the functionality being demonstrated could be done on most phones sold today.

For the most part, the "welcome" screen on the Android prototype looked no different to me from that of a Windows Mobile phone or many other feature phones I've seen. There were icons on the bottom of the screen, indicating a browser or map tool. And the icons could be clicked to launch the applications.

My initial thought was, "What's the big deal? Android doesn't look like it enables anything different from what everyone else offers."

But James Bruce, North American mobile manager for marketing at ARM, said that it's not so much what Android allows cell phone users to do, but rather what it doesn't require handset chip and device makers to do.

"Android provides a complete application framework, which can be put on chipsets with a lot less work," he said.

In a nutshell, Android should simplify the process of getting a new phone and new applications to market. Today, the cell phone market is extremely fragmented. Every manufacturer has its own operating system for phones. And very often even different models of handsets are developed using proprietary software. This makes it difficult for handset components makers, application developers, and the handset makers themselves to develop new products and services quickly because they have to design functionality for each software iteration. Even the most basic functions like SMS could require different programming from one brand of handset to another.

Android is supposed to alleviate this problem, because it provides a common operating system and development platform that has all the basic functionality baked in. But the software, which is based on a version of Linux, is also open enough to allow application developers to design new applications and services for the device.

While this sounds like mobile phone nirvana, there's one snag. Android isn't the only mobile platform out there. Microsoft's Windows Mobile offers all the same functionality. And so does Symbian, which is used by Nokia and Sony Ericsson. Together these companies account for nearly half the entire cell phone market. And to complicate matters even more, there are several Linux groups also developing open platforms for mobile phones.

One such platform developed by the Limo Group, claims to be gaining traction among the Linux community and says it will soon become the unifying Mobile Linux platform.

So with that in mind, there are at least four distinct operating systems for mobile devices. While this is a huge improvement over the hundreds or even thousands of software operating systems running on phones today, four still sounds like too many to me.

Bruce conceded I might be right. But he said ultimately the market will decide how many operating systems it can bare. And he believes the mobile pie is big enough to support several competitors.

"The mobile phone market is huge," he said. "Over a billion phones are shipped worldwide every year. So even if a company can capture five or 10 percent, they can still do well."