On the Motorola Droid

It should be no surprise that Verizon would invest in Android, given the onslaught that AT&T’s exclusivity with the iPhone has brought to everyone, despite the fact that Verizon’s network is superior to AT&T’s, the fact that it has a number of popular handsets and services etc.

And while Europe remains the place where mobile telephony reigns, it is the United States and Asia, with HTC, Apple and Google providing great next-generation devices and Nokia — the reigning king — becoming increasingly irrelevant where it matters: profits, mindshare and innovation.

The new Motorola Droid, a phone launched by Verizon and developed in collaboration with Motorola and Google as its own ‘iPhone killer’ is the first to feature Android 2.0 and a seemingly powerful device in terms of hardware features. Expected to be using the same CPU family as the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre, an ARM Cortex A8 processor and most probably the powerful OMAP3430 by Texas Instruments, the Droid features a high-resolution display and an assortment of features that puts its firmly in N900 territory and far exceed those of the iPhone 3GS. That’s as far as the hardware is concerned, because in the software realm things are so much better than Nokia’s half-baked, joke of an environment and network platform (Ovi). Even before launch, the Android platform is rapidly gaining ground in terms of application availability; with its modern APIs and evolving feature-set make it a great adversary; software matters as the iPhone has demonstrated, with its superior UI and the vast library of applications — more than 85,000 of them as of late September 2009, a massive number compared to 10,000 for the Android and only 2,000 for the BlackBerry.

The Droid logoSo how is the Motorola Droid going to compare with the iPhone, the BlackBerry (especially the latest Storm 2) and the competing Android offerings by other manufacturers? I guess it’s going to do pretty well in the United States, especially if Verizon holds its on in terms of marketing and sales. To me ‘Droid’ looks retro. Typical of the stuff that I’m used to seeing from Motorola; this doesn’t necessarily mean that the device is bad and I would refrain from passing judgement about its appeal until actually using one.

One of the things that the iPhone’s got as a device is industrial design; it’s something that you realise only after using one and something that was striking out when I first saw an iPhone up close back in 2007, especially compared to my old Nokia N95 8GB. Up until today no Android phone has been exceptional in this respect, with the HTC Hero, probably the most impressive of the Android-powered phones that have come out until the Droid, being mediocre at best. The Droid seems to be on a different class, with better construction and more impressive physical characteristics, although I’m obviously not quite sure how good it is; I’m concerned about the build quality, the feel of the physical keyboard (I’m known to be sceptical about physical keyboards in such small devices) and the availability of the phone outside of the United States.

During Google’s earnings conference last week, Eric Schmidt said that ‘Android adoption is going to explode‘. This is probably going to be the case in many markets where the competition favours a new player like Android. I’m hopeful a platform as open as Android (although not quite open in absolute terms) is going to bring significant changes to many markets beyond the United States. Google, like Apple before it, seems to focus first on its home-territory and possibly later on the world market. While the open-source nature of Android is a huge asset to Google, it is also a significant threat; as the mobile phone market is — still — highly controlled by carriers, Google will have to fight an uphill battle in many areas of the world where carrier-manufacturer deals might be threatened by its devices. This is currently evident in many regional European markets where Android devices have had minimal presence (and even less promotion by the carriers).

Despite this, I remain a huge believer in the success of Android in the mid to long term. The availability of multiple devices powered by a common, modern and quasi-open platform (if it ever manages to be that and not a number of bastardised operating systems, each living in their respective walled corporate gardens and prohibiting the synergies that could be possible — technically and economically — by an interoperable, standardised platform) is a huge motivation for innovative companies, individuals and a massive net benefit to an industry that could — at best — be characterised as a thinly veiled unregulated oligopoly.

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