Mobility

Cheat Sheet: Google Android

Updated: Help! The robots are coming!

Google Android? I'm pretty sure this doesn't mean the software giant has started flogging humanoid robots.
And you'd be right. Android is Google's open source software platform for mobile phones - first announced back in 2007.

So how did Google get into the mobile OS business then?
Android was the name of a mobile phone software company Google acquired in 2005. It was co-founded by a software developer called Andy Rubin - an ex-Apple employee who also co-founded mobile software company Danger, now subsumed into the Microsoft monolith after being acquired in 2008.

Since Android's acquisition, Rubin has been employed as Google's director of mobile platforms. The search behemoth also has Android's other co-founder, Rich Miner, on staff as its VP of mobile.

So what exactly is Android when it's at home?
In Google's words, it's a "complete software stack" for mobile phones, built on an open Linux kernel. In short, it's an operating system plus all the middleware and apps you need to run a mobile device.

Google developed the initial release of Android behind closed doors but since then it has made SDKs, APIs and most recently an NDK available to developers. While Google may tout Android as "the first complete, open and free mobile platform" - some of its rivals at least are not buying into the claim.

The latest release of the platform is Android 1.5 - which incorporates code from a development branch that was kept outside the open source arena for a while, known as Cupcake. This brought in a string of updates and enhancements including a software keyboard, cut and paste, and basic support for x86 chip architecture - suggesting Android might find its way onto other types of hardware.

OK but why all the fuss? I mean, aren't there loads of mobile OSes out there?
Indeed there are - in fact industry players have called for a smaller number of OSes to make life easier for mobile software developers working.

Nevertheless, Android remains interesting for several reasons. Firstly there's no getting away from the fact that Google is a software company with massive clout and one of the biggest names on the web.

Secondly its decision to launch an open source platform has rocked mobile's boat - it was doubtless a big part of the reason why proprietary mobile OS maker Symbian is now called the open source Symbian Foundation. Free software also puts pressure on Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS which still uses a licensing fee model.

And then there are apps. Like the Apple iPhone, Android devices have their own dedicated application store - called Android Market - where developers peddle their wares for Android users to download.

Currently the number of apps for the iPhone far outstrips those for Android but Google has the kind of clout that makes it a potentially attractive platform to develop for. Google has also run developer competitions - with cash prizes - to encourage app makers to get involved, so like the iPhone it's bringing third-party energy into the mobile space.

Isn't Google going out on a bit of a limb though? Wooing developers is all well and good, but doesn't it need mobile industry support from the likes of operators and handset makers, as well?
It does and it has. To pave the way for Android's entry into the mobile space Google established a coalition of OEMs, chip manufacturers, software companies and mobile operators called the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) - all committed to helping get Android phones into the market.

The OHA currently has 47 members, including mobile makers HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson.

So how many Android phones are out there?
In the UK...

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