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Sony Ericsson shows love for Android

Sony Ericsson executives are making a big bet on the Google Android operating system as they try to turnaround their struggling handset business.

BARCELONA, Spain--Executives from Sony Ericsson, the struggling European handset maker working hard to make a turnaround in 2010, said most of its new phones introduced this coming year will sport the Google Android operating system.

On the eve of the Mobile World Congress trade show, Sony Ericsson held a press conference here to show off its three new smartphones due out the first half of 2010. All three phones fit into an existing portfolio of devices that the company is calling the Fab Five. And two of the latest handsets will use Google Android.

Sony Ericsson shows off new Android phones. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The two new Android phones are follow-on products to another Android device Sony Ericsson introduced in November, the X10. The new phones, the X10 Mini and X10 Mini Pro, are similar to the X10, but smaller and more compact than the original device.

The third phone announced, the Vivaz Pro, adds a QWERTY keyboard to the Vivaz, a device announced by Sony Ericsson. These phones use the Symbian operating system.

Up until recently, Sony Ericsson mostly used the Symbian operating system for its smartphones. Now, the company's CEO Bert Nordberg said the company will use three mobile OSes: Symbian, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, and Google Android.

That said, most of the new smartphones launched in 2010 will use Google Android, he said.

"This year everyone is talking about Android," he said. "We've been working closely with Google, and we expect the majority of our releases this year will be Android."

Nordberg, who took the CEO post in October, emphasized the company isn't abandoning Symbian, its traditional smartphone OS, nor is it giving up on Microsoft Windows Mobile. The company announced its first Windows Mobile phone two years ago at this same trade show and conference.

"We support three operating systems," he said.

As for the future, he said things could change. "Two and a half years ago it was all Symbian OS. And now Android is everywhere. I don't want to guess what will happen in the next few years, so we are hedging our bets."

Google unveiled its Android open-development operating system in fall 2007. It took a year before the first Android phone, the HTC G1 sold by T-Mobile, was introduced. And at last year's Mobile World Congress, there was only one Android phone announced. Within the past year, more than 50 Android devices have been announced.

It's clear that Sony Ericsson has been swayed by Google's growing popularity. Many handset makers are turning toward Google to help them build competitive smartphones. Motorola, which is also struggling to regain its footing in the handset business, is betting big on Android. The company expects to have at least 20 Android devices on the market by the end of 2010.

Others are also expected to announce Android devices at the conference this week, including HTC, ZTE, Dell, Samsung, and LG.

With so many Android phones hitting the market, how will companies such as Sony Ericsson differentiate their products?

Executives at Sony Ericsson say they aren't worried about that. They believe that they are tweaking the software enough on each of the operating systems used to ensure that consumers have a unique Sony Ericsson experience and not an experience dictated by the operating system.

"The goal eventually is to be OS agnostic," Nordberg said. "It should be the Sony Ericsson experience that users recognize. So it won't matter which OS we use."

Even if the user interface feels like Sony Ericsson, it's clear that operating systems do matter. And the reason is simple. Smartphone consumers want mobile applications for their phones. And developers, who can't develop for every platform, are only choosing to develop their applications for a few platforms. The more users and handsets that use a platform, the more likely it is that developers will create applications for those devices.

Apple's iPhone has created the gold-standard when it comes to this formula. Because the company developed the software, which essentially runs on one piece of hardware, it's easy for developers to create apps that work well on millions of devices. Add in the fact that Apple already had a widely used e-commerce site via iTunes, and it's easy to see why Apple is leading the market in terms of mobile applications.

Now every other handset maker and operating system company in the mobile world is looking to re-create Apple's success. So far, Android has been gaining traction. In fact, the operating system's market share grew to 5.2 percent in December, up from 2.5 percent in September. The Android Market App store has also been growing with more than 25,000 applications. This number is still small compared to Apple's 140,000 apps. But experts expect Android to become a top platform for developers in the coming year.

Sony Ericsson's move toward Android comes as the other major mobile OS brands, Symbian and Microsoft revamp and update their own software. Microsoft is expected to show off Windows Mobile 7 on Monday at a press conference at Mobile World Congress. And the Symbian Foundation, which is in charge of promoting the new open-source version of Symbian, will be at MWC to talk about enhancements to the operating system.