By Ryan Paul
Google didn’t have a booth of its own at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year in Las Vegas, but signs of the search giant’s broad reach were apparent throughout the event. It seems as if practically every major consumer electronics company has adopted Google’s Android mobile operating system in some capacity.
The next generation of Android smartphones emerged at CES. The new high-end offerings like the Motorola Atrix and LG Optimus bring dual-core performance and 4G connectivity. We also saw a few handsets—such as Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Arc—that will ship with Android 2.3, the latest version of the platform.
Android’s maturity as a smartphone operating system and relatively ubiquitous availability on comparable hardware from a wide range of manufacturers is starting to make it difficult to produce truly distinctive Android handsets. Hardware makers will have to start looking for new angles and new areas where they can innovate around the platform in order to continue differentiating their Android-based phones. Motorola has a good start with the Atrix’s impressive docking system, which offers unique value beyond the standard capabilities of the Android platform.
Although Android is mature on smartphones, it’s just starting to wade out to the deep end of the tablet pool and has yet to prove that it can float on larger form-factor devices. The current batch of Android tablets leave a lot to be desired, but the upcoming arrival of Android 3 (codenamed Honeycomb) could prove to be a game changer in 2011. Motorola’s Xoom tablet, which was announced at CES, offered an early look at how Honeycomb could advance Android on tablet devices.
The Xoom prototype we saw was still at an early stage of development, however. We suspect that the status of Honeycomb launch devices will be made clearer at the Mobile World Congress event next month. It might take Google a few iterations to get the tablet formula right, but the company appears to be on the right trajectory.
Android’s growth isn’t limited to handsets and tablets. The platform is also seeing adoption in other categories and is being repurposed in novel ways by a number of hardware vendors. Panasonic, for example,demonstrated a new set of Android-based touchscreen devices for controlling its Viera series of Internet-enabled televisions.
Another cool example of unconventional Android adoption is Parrot’s Web-enabled Asteroid car stereo, which ships with an Android-based software platform. The Asteroid has a completely custom user interface that is tailored to the button-driven hardware and will also have its own SDK, allowing enthusiasts to extend the capabilities of the product.
In some cases, hardware vendors seem to be getting a little bit carried away with their efforts to shoehorn Android into unexpected gadgets. We were a bit puzzled by Nox Audio’s eccentric set of wireless headphones, which use Android to support gesture-based controls on an embedded touchscreen.
In a similar feat of computing overkill, a company called Touch Revolution is offering a programmable Android touch module that can be integrated into home appliances like washing machines and microwaves. Yes, it could soon be possible to program your microwave to tweet when your Hot Pockets have reached the optimal temperature.
Android is attracting a considerable following in the consumer electronics industry and is achieving an impressive level of ubiquity, but the platform’s growing popularity is introducing some new challenges.
Aside from the difficulty of differentiating between Android handsets, the arrival of Android on alternate form factors that demand radically different input paradigms and user interfaces could generate some risk of fragmentation. Google’s rapid pace of development is moving the platform forward faster than handset makers can keep up with the changes and roll out updates.
Google has taken steps to address some of the issues faced by the platform, but the company has largely been preoccupied with its efforts to boost Android’s suitability for tablets. Despite the challenges, Android is starting out 2011 in relatively good health and is positioned for another year of sustainable growth.