Android: Up on tablets, down on smartphones - CTIA Wireless 2011 Scorecard

Whose profile is rising? Android on tablets

Hot on the heels of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) introducing Android 3.0, the first version of the mobile operating system designed from the ground up to support large-screen devices, CTIA Wireless 2011 served as the launching pad for a host of new Android-powered tablets. Samsung--the world's second-largest tablet vendor (thanks to its 7-inch GalaxyTab, released last year)--unveiled the GalaxyTab 8.9 as well as a thinner version of the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Both tablets feature Samsung's new TouchWiz 4.0 user interface running over Google's Android 3.0 operating system.

Samsung executives repeatedly stressed that the tablets are the world's thinnest at only 8.6mm, two millimeters slimmer than Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad 2. (The GalaxyTab 10.1 originally measured in at a thickness of 10.9 mm when it was introduced last month at the Mobile World Congress trade show--weeks ago, Samsung's Lee Jon-Doo told South Korea's Yonhap News Agency that the company would have to "improve the parts that are inadequate," adding "Apple made [the iPad 2] very thin.")

Despite the arrival of Android 3.0, Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) new Evo View 4G instead runs Android 2.4. Essentially a branded version of the HTC Flyer, introduced last month during Mobile World Congress, the tablet features a 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, a 7-inch screen with 1024x600 resolution, a 5-megapixel camera, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chatting and 32 GB of internal storage.

Also in the pipeline: Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP) said it plans to release the 7-inch ViewSonic Android tablet this summer. Leap's Matt Stoiber told FierceWireless the ViewSonic will run Android, 2.3, but will only feature Wi-Fi and not built-in connections to the carrier's CDMA network.

The week's most significant Android tablet-related announcement followed just hours after CTIA Wireless 2011 wrapped, when Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) confirmed reports its forthcoming BlackBerry PlayBook will run Android applications. RIM said it will launch two optional "app players" that provide an application runtime environment for BlackBerry Java apps as well as Android 2.3 solutions.

Whose profile is falling? Android on smartphones

CTIA Wireless 2011 wasn't completely devoid of new Android handsets: Sprint (NYSE:S) unveiled its first 3-D smartphone, the Evo 3D, an Android 2.3-based unit touting a "glasses-free" multi-dimensional viewing experience. But compared to recent industry events like last month's Mobile World Congress, where Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) hosted a sprawling Android developer showcase on the conference floor and CEO Eric Schmidt served as a keynote speaker, Android smartphones were in relatively short supply this time around.

It could be an aberration--CTIA Wireless 2011 was short on significant news, period. But last week, reports surfaced that Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) is developing its own Web-based mobile operating system as a potential alternative to Android, which presently powers the device maker's smartphones. InformationWeek reported that Motorola Mobility has hired engineers from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Adobe Systems to spearhead the project, which a source said is the result of the firm's concern over Android fragmentation, product differentiation and Google partner support. Motorola Mobility has not denied the existence of the effort, stating only it remains "committed to Android as an operating system."

"I know they're working on [the new OS]," said Deutsche Bank analyst Jonathan Goldberg. "I think the company recognizes that they need to differentiate, and they need options, just in case. Nobody wants to rely on a single supplier."

And there could be more trouble on the horizon for Android on smartphones. Hours before CTIA Wireless 2011 opened, AT&T (NYSE:T) announced its bombshell agreement to acquire T-Mobile USA from parent Deutsche Telekom for $39 billion in cash and stock. Assuming the deal earns federal approval and T-Mobile goes away, Google faces the loss of one its closest and most progressive Android partners. T-Mobile USA introduced the first-ever Android smartphone, the G1, in late 2008, and last year rolled out the G2, its first HSPA+ device. But Google's relationship with AT&T is far more tenuous. No doubt due to its close relationship with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), AT&T has been notoriously slow to embrace Android. Moreover, the operator blocks non-market Android applications from devices like the Motorola Backflip and HTC Aria, explaining it selected Android Market as its exclusive source for applications because "it forces developers to be accountable for the apps they submit"--a perspective that runs directly opposite the open-source, anything-goes ethos at the core of the Android platform.

Of course, Google's own adherence to open source is up for debate in the wake of news it will temporarily restrict access to Android 3.0 on smartphones. The OS update is not yet ready for customization across a variety of products, Google explained: "While we're excited to offer new features to Android tablets, we have more work to do before we can deliver them to other device types including phones," the company said in a statement. "We're committed to providing Android as an open platform across many device types and will publish the source as soon as it's ready."

Google declined to specify when it would make the Android 3.0 code available as an open-source release, which would allow developers and hardware makers to retool and expand the operating system as they see fit.

The decision to delay Android 3.0's public release is not expected to affect manufacturers' plans to release tablets running the software, however. "Google is trying to limit any damage potential by granting access to those companies that work well with Google in order to preserve the experience," Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi told The Wall Street Journal, adding that Google is likely taking precautions to protect the Android brand against low-cost hardware makers trying to push into the tablet segment by releasing inferior products.

Google's choice to make Android available as an open-source platform is arguably the most decisive factor behind the operating system's staggering growth. An Android platform that is anything but open is an unthinkable turn of events. "Android is an open-source project," Google VP of Engineering Andy Rubin told BusinessWeek. "We have not changed our strategy."

Android: Up on tablets, down on smartphones - CTIA Wireless 2011 Scorecard