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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…there are currently two in the market and a third hitting shelves soon. The G1, made by HTC and exclusive to T-Mobile, was the first Android handset to launch; followed by the HTC Magic, exclusive to Vodafone. The third device is called the HTC Hero (confusingly also known as the G1 Touch) which is due to ship soon.

The Hero illustrates an interesting aspect of the Android strategy – it’s being skinned with a UI made by HTC rather than with the Android UI that’s on both the G1 and the Magic.

Rather than go for an Apple-esque ‘one phone to rule them all’ play, Google’s aiming for a strategy that will lead to an army of Android devices, made by different handset makers and sporting various flavours of UI.

What about other types of Android-powered hardware?
Android’s potential as a netbook OS has got analysts rather excited – with Ovum predicting Android-powered mini laptops will land this year and that Google’s OS will overtake Linux as the platform of choice for low-end devices. Netbook maker Acer for one has put its head above the parapet and said it will issue an Android-powered netbook later this year.

However, Android looks set to be limited to low-end netbooks and ‘mobile internet devices’ as it ventures outside the smartphone arena, as Google has now announced it is diving into the desktop OS market proper next year, with another Linux offering called Chrome OS. It’s being targeted at higher end netbooks thereby capping Android’s ambitions in this space.

Talking of the L word – what about mobile Linux? Aren’t there already open source mobile Linux offerings and alliances out there? Where does Google’s Android fit in with that lot?
Mobile Linux has been doing its thing for years – long before Android arrived on the scene – but the problem it has traditionally had is keeping everyone on the same path. At times there have been several parallel mobile Linux efforts on the go so the movement has been accused of fragmentation.

One of Google’s stated hopes for Android has therefore been to unite mobile Linux’s efforts – behind its version of mobile Linux of course.

That said, a coalition of tech companies called The LiMo Foundation has sent more than 30 LiMo handset models into the market – albeit with many devices focused on the Japanese market. The Foundation says it will release an SDK later this year but clearly has a lot of catching up to do with Android on the developer front.

What about business? Are Android devices heading to the enterprise?
It’s probably safe to say they are not storming the enterprise bastion just yet – certainly not by the front door as there is no official Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync support as yet (third party apps do offer syncing though).

That said, Robert Ainger, director of corporate marketing at Orange – which will be offering the HTC Hero when it ships – recently told its business customers had been asking for Android – in a ‘we’re keen to kick the tyres and find out a bit more’ kind of way. So, given it a bit more time, perhaps Android might start meaning more in the business space.