Technology

Android: One Multitasking Operating System


When Google (GOOG) and its partners first unveiled plans for the Android operating system, they billed it as software that would run mobile phones. That mission was accomplished the following year with the late 2008 release of T-Mobile's G1 phone. More Android-enabled handsets are on the way.

But before long, you may be seeing Android in a lot of other electronic devices.

Just ask Mark Hamblin, who helped design the original touchscreen for the Apple (AAPL) iPhone. Now the CEO of Touch Revolution, Hamblin is tinkering with Android so it can work in a slew of gadgets other than wireless phones. In late 2009, Touch Revolution plans to introduce a remote control and a touchscreen land-line home phone that will be powered by Android. Also in the works from Hamblin's company: touchscreen menus for restaurants, Android-based medical devices, and a 15-in. kitchen computer where family members can leave messages for one another.

More Devices on the Way

Android everywhere would come as good news to Google and chipmakers such as Qualcomm (QCOM) and Texas Instruments (TXN) that have invested in its development and would welcome the chance to sell semiconductors in new markets. But Android ubiquity could cause headaches for Microsoft (MSFT), which would rather see its own software on a wider range of electronic devices.

Where will Android end up next? A handful of electronics manufacturers plan to unveil Android-based mobile Internet devices, or MIDs, and stripped-down computers known as netbooks at the GSMA Mobile World Congress, scheduled for later this month in Barcelona. "Nine months ago it was a lot of people who were curious" about using Android, says John Bruggeman, chief marketing officer at WindRiver Systems (WIND), a consulting firm that's working with several Asia-based manufacturers on the products. "Now they are starting to build designs" that effectively bypass Windows altogether, he says. Bruggeman declines to name the companies planning to introduce Android products.

Microsoft says it's undaunted by the prospect of increased competition from Android, itself based on Linux, a software whose code is freely available via the Internet and developed by programmers the world over. "We welcome the chance to compete with others in this space," a Microsoft representative said in a statement. "Overall, we find that customers prefer the familiarity, compatibility, and ease-of-use of Windows over Linux."

Designed to Run on Any Device

Yet in some cases, Android may end up with first-mover advantage as it shows up in devices such as netbooks or digital photo frames where Microsoft has yet to establish a beachhead. "It would make sense for any [software vendor] to play there," Hamblin says. "I see tremendous growth in these ubiquitous computing devices." That looks all the more attractive as growth slows in the computing industry. PC shipments are expected to increase only 4.3% this year, according to researcher iSuppli.

Manufacturers that work with Texas Instruments have built Android into video and audio players and picture frames due out within months. Rival semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm is helping vendors ready more than 20 Android-based products, including video players and small tablet PCs, for release in 2009 and early 2010. Google hasn't announced plans to market Android for use in nonphone gadgets. Still, "we are being very supportive to the [developer] community targeting these devices," says Andy Rubin, senior director of mobile platforms at Google.

While they didn't say much about nonwireless devices when they first started talking about Android, Google and its partners designed Android to run on any device—from a smart phone to a server. "We had the foresight to design it with bigger screens and [chips] in mind," Rubin says. Unlike many cell-phone and PC-based operating systems, Android can run on devices powered by a variety of semiconductors with minimal modifications needed. "There's nothing that I've been able to find out that would limit it," says Bill Hughes, an independent software analyst.

Competition from Linux

With flexibility comes economy. Manufacturers can keep costs low by being able to choose from a wider range of chips, for example. The software is also virtually free to use, while Microsoft charges licensing fees.

And just in case consumers fret that they won't be able to use their favorite Microsoft applications on an Android device, a company called DataViz will soon unveil software that it says will let people open, edit, and send Word, Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint files. The software will also allow synching between Android and Outlook e-mail. "Android has quite a bit of potential," says Ilya Eliashevsky, product manager at DataViz.

As potent as it may be, Android faces competition not just from Microsoft but also Linux. One of Android's creators, Intel (INTC), recently introduced its own Linux software, Moblin, for use with MIDs and netbooks running its Atom processors.

That said, there's no reason why the two efforts couldn't combine, says David Liu, CEO of Good OS, which plans to use parts of Android and Moblin to speed the boot-up times of its own computer software.

And in places where Microsoft is established, consumers familiar with Windows may also hesitate to adopt a new operating system. "People tend to be pretty sticky with their [operating systems]," Hughes says. "[Android] has to offer something cheaper and dramatically easier to use." Woe to Microsoft if it does.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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Kharif is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in Portland, Ore.

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