How Viable is Android When It’s Not on a Smart Phone? ;).
In recent months, Android has enjoyed great success on smart phones. With a free to use, open OS, most casual observers had expected the market to be deluged with Android devices of all stripes by now, but it isn’t. Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy Player was spied recently in some impromptu shots. If this device happens, it would be one of the few non-phone Android devices. When Google is trying to hone Android for use in phones, is there really a place for manufacturers to experiment with other types of devices? Google itself has a history of ignoring Android devices that aren’t marketable smart phones.
Let’s explore the viability of Android devices that eschew the cellular radio.
An Android tablet is becoming a digital unicorn these days. Ever since the iPad appeared, people have been hoping for an Android competitor. As the second major smart phone operating system, it seemed only natural that Google would step up to the plate. The results so far haven’t been very encouraging. We’ve seen some leaked spy-shots of various tablets, some demo units at trade shows, and a K-Mart Blue Light special Augen Tablet.
A few pics of the so-called Galaxy Tab from Samsung have shown up in recent months. While it is encouraging to see a well-known manufacturer in the tablet game with Android, there are some concerns about this device. First and foremost, it looks like Samsung has just scaled up the Android UI. It makes no sense to just make everything bigger. This device looks to be about 7-inches diagonal. With that kind of space, icons and UI elements are just comically large. It even appears to have phone functionality at this stage. The usability concerns here are significant, as we’ve previously discussed.
Samsung has mentioned the Galaxy Tab will have a Samsung app store, which would make sense as Google has been holding the Market and other Google apps back from tablets. The implementation of Android on tablets may be the reason why. None of them have been very compelling. Android right now does not lend itself well to use on larger form factor devices. Even Archos has really just used Android for the underlying architecture in their Android home tablets (like the Archos 5), very little of the UI is exposed. Rumor has it Google intends to stymie Android tablets until Android 3.0 Gingerbread is out late this year. We expect to see more built-in support for larger tablet-size devices. Right now, they don’t want to officially support a product that can’t compete.
The recent buzz in the tablet space has beenAugen’s Gentouch Android tablet. The device is available at K-Mart stores for $150. But in this case, it seems you get what you pay for. This device has a slow CPU, too little RAM, a poor resistive touch-screen, and (as of last week) no Google apps. The first batch of Augen tablets actually had the Market, Gtalk, and all the rest on board. But early adopters noticed the Market was not working due to incompatibilities. Google took note and Augen has now admitted they did not get authorization to use the Google apps, which are closed source. New lots will not have these apps pre-installed.
For a Google tablet to be successful, there will need to be a real push from Mountain View. There needs to be the tablet equivalent of the Motorola Droid. Something that Google can help develop to move Android forward. In fact, rumors suggest that a Motorola Tablet is headed to Verizon with a FiOS tie-in later this year. This might be a sanctioned Google tablet. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Running Android on a GPS system has some appeal. First, the UI on a GPS unit is usually poor. These are devices about getting you where you need to go, not impressing you with good interface design. Since Android is free and customizable, navigation companies could forge a better UI easily. Functions that are not needed could be removed making the OS lighter for these low-power devices. Then all that would be needed is a GPS app to run on the device. The app could be tailored to specific uses like turn-by-turn, hiking, or even military use.
A more interesting possibility is suggested by Google’s own Maps and Navigation apps. Starting with the Droid, Android phones got turn-by-turn navigation integrated with Google Maps. The only problem is that the maps require a data connection to download the tiles as you go. And use of the Google software would require The Big G to approve the device, but let’s assume they have. There are a few ways to make this work in a standalone GPS unit.
First, the manufacturer could build in a 3G modem that’s just for data in the navigation app. A carrier tie-in would be needed, but the monthly fee could be much lower than a smart phone as data usage would likely be minimal. Paying for data might seem like a loss for the consumer, but there are benefits in having always up to date maps, voice search, and live traffic data.
Another way to make an Android GPS unit work would be to develop a way of caching Google map data offline. This would require Google support to change the way Google maps works, though. If it could be done, users would just have the Google maps for their region stored on internal memory, so no 3G data connection would be needed to use Google’s excellent Navigation app.
Pure Media Players
One of the things often cited as driving the growth of the iOS app ecosystem, is the existence of the iPod Touch. Let’s face it, smart phones are expensive and require a monthly commitment. Many consumers cannot afford, or make use of a smart phone. Users might be interested a device running a particular OS, but not as a phone with a data plan. By offering a device with a relatively low barrier to entry, Apple opened the App Store up to many more people. There is no Android equivalent to the iPod Touch right now.
Samsung seems determined to blaze a path here as well. We’ve been seeing the Galaxy Player show up from time to time, and it looks like the first Android analog to the iPod Touch. The Galaxy Player is internally similar to the Galaxy S phones, but without a cellular radio. It, of course, runs Samsung’s TouchWiz UI on top of Android. We see the same potential problem here as in tablets. If there is no Android Market support, it does not help advance the platform as a whole.
Archos seems poised to release an Android media player called the Archos 32 with 8GB of storage, a 3.2-inch 400×240 touch screen, Android 2.1, and an 800MHz ARM CPU. Once again, this device is not expected to have the Android Market or other Google apps. Past Archos Android devices have had the ability to install apps, but users have to find the Market APK file and install it manually. Even then, only non-protected apps can be downloaded. This is shady to begin with, and copy-protected apps will probably not be available.
Obviously, Google isn’t going to register a device for protected Market apps if they didn’t authorize it to run the Market in the first place. At this point, Google doesn’t have much incentive to support these non-phone devices, Without a constant internet connection, it’s harder to serve ads to devices. Google gives Android away, so without an always-on connection, Google doesn’t see as much revenue.
Another potential reason we haven’t seen an Android media player is that Android just isn’t that good at media playback. Apple can justify the iPod Touch as a vehicle to sell music and movies. Google doesn’t have anything like that right now. Though, rumors are still pointing to a Google Music service launching later this year; perhaps alongside Gingerbread. That could be the time to officially sanction stand-alone media players complete with the Market and Google Music support.
These are just a few of the possible uses for Android other than phones. We may see Google’s operating system slide into appliances or cars in the future, but the above devices are the ones you’re likely to see first. Using Android on non-phone devices right now is tricky. Google isn’t too keen on these types of products, so manufacturers are on their own. One can hope that the release of Gingerbread will bring wider device support, but until then Android will live mostly on smart phones. What sort of devices would you like to see Android on? Do you have a hankering for an Android media player, or maybe an Android refrigerator?
Image credit: Engadget
Who said? Ryan Whitwam said ;).