Android, LTE take center stage in Barcelona

With the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona looming, even pressurized device makers are determined to look their best, and patterns are emerging for the strongest trends of 2009. While Nokia will spend most of the year getting its open source Symbian platform and ecosystem in place, Android should be the star of the show this year, offering vendors an alluring combination of a high profile new platform backed by all Google's marketing muscle, relatively low development costs and the chance to expand the mobile web experience to a broader base. And as a few operators start to trial LTE, there will be some glimpses of which chip vendors might take early advantage.

Android remains as US a phenomenon as Symbian is European, and the US carriers should have first look at many of the higher profile phones this year, as T-Mobile USA did with the first ever Android phone, the HTC Dream, a.k.a. G1. Samsung will be the largest supplier doing a major Android launch this year, and should preview its wares in Barcelona prior to roll-out in mid-year. According to news reports, it will initially bring the handset to market in the US, where it wants to solidify the market lead it snatched from Motorola last year, the W-CDMA version in partnership with T-Mobile, and the CDMA model with Sprint Nextel.

'We are accelerating the development process for [the] Google phone in order to meet the specific needs of local carriers,' a Samsung spokesperson said, though he was cagey about further details beyond the obvious - that it will be a touchscreen phone with Google applications tightly integrated.

What's next for Android

Most new Android handsets this year will feature the enhanced version of the software platform, codenamed Cupcake (or officially, RC31, available soon). According to Google, this will feature a wide range of updates for development, email, web browsing and MMS, plus support for on-screen keyboards and larger display sizes. HTC is likely to create a 'G2' for T-Mobile, possibly ahead of the Samsung product and the make-or-break range promised by Motorola around the middle of 2009.

Making the most of its position as sole Android operator, T-Mobile will expand availability of the G1 within the next few weeks, to the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Austria by the end of January, and then to Germany and Poland in February. These countries will join the US and UK, though T-Mobile will face some positioning dilemmas in its native Germany, where it is also the exclusive carrier for the Apple iPhone. T-Mobile CEO Hamid Akhavan recently told the Reuters news agency that sales of the G1 in the US have 'exceeded expectations', but would not be more specific.

China Mobile should be the next carrier to announce an Android phone, though the platform has had some setbacks. In January, the would-be second handset in the market, the Agora from Australian electronics firm Kogan, was put on indefinite hold, with quality problems cited.

Analysts at In-Stat are predicting compound annual growth rates of between 270% and 308% up to 2012 for Android, from a standing start, which would deliver volumes of 97 million to 164 million units, drawing level with predicted Symbian device shipments by the end of the period, though other analysts believe it will take the Google system longer to catch up with the installed base, market channels and more mature developer platform of the Nokia backed offering.


On to LTE

The handset baseband chipmakers are, of course, eyeing new phone developments. The big names signed up for the Open Handset Alliance, the industry group that supports Android, are Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Intel, Broadcom, ARM, Marvell and Invidia, and Qualcomm is likely to take an early lead, having demonstrated Android running a variety of its platforms, including the Snapdragon for netbooks and mobile Internet devices. It has also showed its hand in LTE ahead of its rivals, showing prototypes in Barcelona last year, and with a major push expected at this year's congress.

Also pinning high hopes on early LTE markets will be Infineon, whose business remains over-dependent on low-end GSM silicon, but which has been greatly boosted by its flagship contract with Apple for the single-chip iPhone baseband/applications processor.

While the German firm will be fighting hard to get this 3G product into larger vendors, taking on the king of single-chip offerings, Qualcomm, it is also preparing an LTE version, the SMARTi LU, which combines the baseband and radio transceiver on one 65nm chip and is backwards compatible with EDGE and HSPA. This was detailed recently by MacNN, and would be a clear candidate for a 4G iPhone - not that anyone expects that to materialize until at least one carrier has a reasonably widely available network, so probably 2011.

But chipmakers need to negotiate their vendor deals at least a year in advance of product launches, so Infineon will be closely watched in the LTE space throughout this year, to see whether it can steal any thunder from Qualcomm.

Caroline Gabriel is research director of Rethink Research Associates