Google Gives Android Devs a Kit to Tinker With

Google is finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with its long-awaited and much-hyped Android phone platform. This week has seen two significant developments: the first Android-powered device officially being approved by the FCC, and the beta version of the Android software development kit being released by Google.

Both moves mark the end of months of speculation. Rumors have popped up every few weeks suggesting problems and potential delays with the first Android phone’s shipment. On the other side of the coin, developers have expressed ongoing frustration with the lack of stable SDK (software developer kit) standards. With both issues seemingly now addressed, though, the race to store shelves is on — but the questions surrounding Android’s potential for success are yet to be answered.

“Dream” Comes True

The HTC Dream was first rumored for an October release in a leak by The New York Times last week. With its FCC approval now in check, that date could prove to be fairly accurate.

FCC documents indicate the phone — offered via T-Mobile — will boast GSM, GPRS, and EDGE capability along with WiFi and Bluetooth 2.0 power. It will function on the 1700 WCDMA band, T-Mobile’s 3G network. It will also have a “jog ball,” something likely to be similar to the track ball navigation tool found on some other smartphones.

While no official pricing has been announced by T-Mobile, unofficial Web reports suggest the phone could sell in the ballpark of US$400 with a handful of specials during its first weeks of release.

Behind-the-Scenes Change

As for the SDK, the new version — 0.9 beta — picks up where Google’s “early look” releases left off last November. A full 1.0 release is tentatively scheduled for September, but Google’s engineers say the APIs (application programming interfaces) should remain relatively stable from now until then.

The updated kit drops support for Gtalk due to unspecified “security reasons.” It also removes the Bluetooth API. New features added include an updated home screen, extra tools for XML (extensible markup language) development, and a handful of new applications: an alarm clock, calculator, camera, music player, picture viewer, and SMS/MMS messaging capability.

Questions of Success

The one-two punch of news is generating plenty of buzz within the mobile industry, and one thing’s for sure: All eyes are now on Google to see if it will revolutionize the cell phone, or just fall flat.

“For the consumer, at the end of the day, what really matters is what can I do with the phone,” Parks Associates Director of Research John Barrett told LinuxInsider. “If Android allows you to do things you can’t do otherwise and it’s better, then consumers will start to say, ‘I know what this is, and I want it.’ That’s going to be hard to get to that point,” he predicted.

Getting to that point, Barrett believes, may ultimately boil down to the providers.

“To me, the key variable is really not so much Android. … It’s your big mobile phone operators that command most of the market share and how are they going to act and react,” he noted.

“I think the idea behind Android is a good one — the idea of having an open platform — but at the same time, phones are different from computers. Most people don’t realize their phone has an OS on it, much less care about what OS it has,” Barrett concluded.

The Developer Factor

Providers aside, another noteworthy part of the equation lies within the developer community. The 10-month gap between last November’s “early look” SDK release and this month’s beta offering led to much public debate over the value of investing time in a phone with such instability and no proven measure of profitability.

“Really, the success of a platform boils down to the developers,” Derek Kerton, principal analyst with the Kerton Group, told LinuxInsider. “When you’re sitting at zero [handsets], developers have to make their bets,” he said.

Google’s hope, of course, is that having its name and resources behind Android will be enough to convince developers to take the risk and move forward with application creation. Given the company’s past success in other realms, it could very well be a reasonable enough goal to achieve.

“One would think that Google, with their very broad reach and very good branding, would be at lots of advantages with respect to distribution. Their open nature might mean they have a pretty good rev share model in place for the developers,” Kerton pointed out. “I think a lot of [the developers] are betting that it’s worth playing with the Android platform.”

iPhone Competition

The big test, of course, will be how well Android devices can compete with the mobile industry’s giant: the iPhone. In the end, price may prove to be an important factor.

“[The iPhone] is the benchmark device out there,” Kerton noted. “It may as well be the only phone in the world, if you’re Google. You’ve got to match that, and if not do better, be cheaper — one or the other,” he said.

Being cheaper certainly appears to be one of Android’s goals, as has been stated since the start. As for how it’ll stack up to its heavyweight competitor, only time will tell — but Google, no doubt, has a lot working in its favor, and its idea of change could just catch on.

“I think Google and Android are definitely moving with the tide, so to speak. The U.S. market has historically been less open than a lot of international markets,” Barrett told LinuxInsider. “Google very much wants to change that.”

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