The tepid initial sales of the Google phone notwithstanding, this is definitely the year to start watching Android. ComScore reports that Android's share of the smart phone market doubled from 2.5% in September to 5.2% by the end of last year. Other stats I see here and there show that Android's share of mobile Web activity is spiking noticeably. I imagine that much of this sharp growth is coming from Motorola and Verizon's DROID-related campaigns.
There are also enough Android phones in the wild to get anecdotal feedback from everyday folks. My experience is with the DROID and original T-Mobile HTC G1 only. But from others who have used a wider range of devices, I have heard positive feedback on the speed and reformatting chops of the browser, the strength of email on the platform, and of course that multitasking. Downsides persist for many. QWERTY and touchpad text entry comes up a lot as negatives. One of my peeves, background tasks that won't shut down easily, continues to bug me. There are many aspects of desktop computing that should not be transferred to handsets.
I maintain that in most of its parts, Android phones and the OS itself continue to feel more like a PC experience than they should. I like that I can tap a menu button and get a contextualized set of commands for the current app. It leaves more real estate for the app display itself than does the standard iPhone app. But I am not a fan of the sliding tray of icons and its endless scroll.
I hear that multi-touch is coming this week to my DROID. None too soon for me. The iPhone makes me feel as if I am surfing on fairly smooth water. Android's OS and hardware too often feels as if I am tugging and yanking things around and having to think twice or thrice before knowing which of the hard and soft menus to access.
But these are mere quibbles. The biggest challenge for media companies and brand marketers is likely to be that damned Marketplace, which has gotten only nominally better in recent updates. It is an open source circus that sometimes resembles a stroll down Fifth Avenue's curbside vendors. "Hey buddy, want to buy a CNN or Fox News app? We got one cheap right here. Just like the real thing." These third-party news "widgets" and "bookmarks" posing as branded apps (sometimes bearing the corporate logo) are evident in the iPhone App Store as well, but they are rife in the Android Marketplace - to the point of being distracting.
Media brands that got in early with strong apps like AP, E!, USAToday, and TV.com have solid presence with apps that I think dissuade copycats. But consumer brands might want to drill into some of the stuff that is flooding this market already. One "skin developer" is grabbing premium logos left and right to craft wallpapers and themes around luxury brands like Chanel and Burberry. Single developers can overwhelm sections of the app catalog with a torrent of cheesecake apps, soundboards, wallpapers, etc. around scores of different celebrities. In short, the whole bazaar looks and feels more lawless than "open source" at times. Is there a way to balance the needs of an open market with the needs of premium brands for a more orderly environment?
Where the Android Market does seem to excel now is in the area of experimentation with augmented reality. If you believe that AR is going to be critical to how phones knit the real world back to the Internet of data, then the Android market is the place to be. While there is a version of Layar and Yelp's Monocle on the iPhone, Android has had Wikitude for a while, and it has become a clearinghouse for new AR concepts. Yellowbook's Yellow Pages has an AR layer, as do the Lonely Planet apps. Car locators and travel guides abound in the catalog. Precisely the kind of uber-geek developer that Android is apt to attract seems to like playing with different ways of superimposing geo-relevant data on a camera view of the vicinity.
From the beginning, all Android phones were more amenable to AR, because Apple was not letting apps access the live camera mode in necessary ways until last summer's update. So it is natural that developers have veered towards Google's platform. The payoff is impressive. In less than a year we have evolved from the gee-whiz stage of Wikitude to a convincingly integrated use of AR in the Yellow Pages app. The listings are comprehensive, so a search of almost any local resource will fill the live view with pins that pop up direct click-to-call links.
Serious publishers are already pulling this approach out of the labs in order to refine the interfaces. As I use AR in real-world situations I realize how effectively it cuts through one of the abstractions that traditional maps have imposed on us. On a map, we have to visualize a route or translate an address into a familiar location. Instead of visualizing the data, AR "data-izes" our natural view of the world.
For all of my whining about the rough edges of Android hardware and the OS, I think there are advantages to having a geek in your pocket. The downsides to the Android platform for now are also potential upsides for brands that want to experiment. Yes, it is a bit of a wild West in there. But it also has the spirit of a lab. With its lower visibility than the iPhone App Store, there seems to be more room to test, iterate and refine.