Most of the companies building smartphones based on Google Android are just dipping their toes in the water. Motorola is the one company that's making a big bet on Android. That's why a lot of Android's 2009 success or failure will be tied to Motorola's mobile comeback.———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————
Google has stated that 18 new Android-based smartphones from about eight different vendors will arrive before the end of 2009 (I'll believe that when I see it). My ZDNet colleague Larry Dignan has rightly asked, If everyone bets on Android does anyone get an advantage? However, much of Android's 2009 mojo will depend on one company: Motorola.
A lot of mobile phone vendors are dipping a toe in the water with Android, including HTC, Samsung, LG, and Sony Ericsson. There are even rumors that Dell, Lenovo, and Acer are all piddling around with the idea of building Android smartphones.
See also: Would Nokia + Android be a love match?
However, for all of these companies, the Android thing is really an experiment. They are throwing a few resources at it, just in case it takes off and turns into something big, but none of them are making big bets on it. None of them are counting on it as their core business. If Android crashes and burns within a couple years (which is still entirely possible), they'll just write off their Android efforts and move their developers and project managers over to the next experiment.
The one exception is Motorola. Motorola is betting its mobile handset business on Android, as Motorola's mobile phone chief Sanjay Jha has repeatedly stated. The problem is that Motorola's mobile phone unit has been struggling badly for a couple years and the Android bet is a bold, and even desperate, move to get back in the game.
Nevertheless, it's a feather in Android's cap that such a huge player in the mobile business is betting on it. As Dignan wrote, "Motorola brings global distribution to the table and is hellbent on fixing its handset business."
Motorola is expected to bring a pair of Android devices to market by Q4 2009: a CDMA version (likely on Verizon) and a GSM device (likely on T-Mobile). These smartphones are expected to focus on consumers and prominently feature messaging and social networking apps.
Look for these Moto Android devices to be heavily hyped in the U.S. by both Motorola and the mobile carriers because the smartphone market is one of the few hot segments of the technology market in the down economy. And, if Motorola stumbles here and comes out with sub-par or overpriced devices, then it will deal a heavy blow to Motorola's handset comeback and it could badly tarnish Android since Moto is making the biggest bet on Google's platform.
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The biggest risk for the Moto Android smartphones may be pricing. If they sell these as $300 devices, they will go toe-to-toe with Apple iPhone and Palm Pre (which is also coming to Verizon at the beginning of 2010). And that's a battle that Android can't win. Although its OS is solid and has plenty of potential, it's just not in the same league with the iPhone and the Pre.
The biggest advantage of Android is its low price for hardware makers. If Motorola produces solid touchscreen+qwerty Android smartphones with just enough features to satisfy the masses and priced in the $50-$100 range, they could have a hit. They could help convert a lot of standard mobile users to smartphone users (with the help of low-tier data plans from the mobile carriers). This would be a low-margin, high volume business.
But, if Motorola tries to use Android to trade knock-out punches with iPhone and Palm Pre, then both Moto and Android could get a bloody nose in that fight.
UPDATED: The one big question I still have regarding Motorola's Android efforts has to do with the fact that Motorola now owns Good Technology (maker of corporate groupware software to connect Treos and Windows Mobile phones to Exchange) and there have been reports that the Good engineers were working on Motorola's Android projects. Since Android doesn't natively support Exchange ActiveSync, it limits the use of Android in businesses. Could Motorola be using Good Technology to build the first enterprise-capable Android smartphones with corporate Exchange integration?
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.