Progress, and a problem for Android
Google's Android smartphone operating system is doing well, just not quite as good as you might think from headlines like "Android overtakes Apple in US smartphone market."
It's true that the NPD Group reported yesterday that its first-quarter survey of U.S. customers put Apple's iPhone in third place behind Android, which itself trailed Research In Motion's BlackBerry. (NPD's exact figures are 21 percent, 28 percent and 36 percent.)
Set aside the possibility of statistical flaws in the Port Washington, N.Y., firm's market research. There are simply a lot more Android models and a lot more carriers to sell them to you--and in some cases you'll pay a great deal less than you would for an iPhone. You can sneer that freebie deals cheapen the Android brand, but you can't say those kinds of sales tactics don't move hardware.
And yet ... news about rising sales of Android phones and an ever-improving selection of Android applications (for instance, an updated Google Maps program with biking directions or a major newspaper's timely arrival on the platform) shouldn't outweigh other issues.
One is the evident failure of Google to get into the phone market by itself. Remember when it introduced the Nexus One in January, with a direct-to-customer sales model? When the Nexus One home page then listed a second model compatible with AT&T's 3G network and listed a Verizon-compatible version as coming soon--followed by Sprint's announcement in March that it, too, would offer this device--it looked like Google was on to something.
But a couple of weeks ago, Verizon quietly dropped its plans for the Nexus One to focus on the Droid Incredible. And by yesterday, Sprint had also bailed out on the Nexus One; it will instead push the Evo 4G as its next big Android device.
You can see Android's other issue in the lineup of Android phones that Sprint sells today. Its HTC Hero and Samsung Moment ship with an obsolete version of Google's software and have seen promised updates slip. After weeks of false rumors about an imminent upgrade from Android 1.5--which delivered over a year ago--to Android 2.1, a Sprint rep posted a note in a tech-support forum offering only vague information:
We are on track for the upgrade to be available in Q2. Sprint had hoped to have this resolved by now - we thank our customers for their patience as we work to bring them a positive experience with this upgrade.
Sprint has plenty of company in this aspect, however; Verizon's Droid Eris (a sibling of the Hero), AT&T's Motorola Backflip, and T-Mobile's Motorola Cliq and Samsung Behold also ship with 1.5, while Verizon's Motorola Devour runs the not-much-newer 1.6 release.
At the rate these guys are going, by the time those phones get their promised 2.1 upgrade, newer models will have long since shipped with the 2.2 edition of Android. Or maybe enough of their users will get tired of waiting and instead go to the trouble of installing some souped-up, unofficial flavor of Android instead.
May 11, 2010; 2:56 PM ET
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