Android invasion: How much of it is hype?

Google just announced it wants to make its Android mobile operating system more accessible and functional for enterprise users. And that news comes just days after San Francisco-based startup Touch Revolution claimed that some well-known companies will release Android-powered household devices this year.

On the handset side, T-Mobile USA just launched its second Android phone, the myTouch 3G--one of at least 18 phones running on Android that Google has promised will be in the market by the end of the year. But while Cellular South, Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless have said they will launch Android phones, T-Mobile so far remains the only U.S. carrier currently offering the platform.

All of this begs the question: How much of the Android invasion is hype?

Right now, the platform's potential remains untapped. Indeed, I think that there has been a lot of unjustified noise around Android of late. But all of the buildup and attention may well be worth it--if handset makers can produce Android phones that have unique and compelling user experiences.

In a recent interview with FierceWireless, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said the carrier's decision to hop on the Android bandwagon was prompted by advances in the platform and applications as well as the maturity of the hardware. "We didn't want to launch a new platform with its brand before it was really ready for primetime," he said. "We thought a year ago it was premature, and we don't any more."

Handset makers are beginning to craft Android in unique ways. HTC, which is currently the most active handset maker in the Android market, took a big step forward with its Sense software. The software, which will be available on the Hero--its latest Android phone--as well as all HTC Android devices going forward, will allow users to, among other things, put a contact's photo alongside their text messages, emails and call history in a single view, and to have customizable, push-based widgets like weather, Twitter and email. And there are indications Motorola too is going to differentiate its Android phones by adding push software.

The upside to having so many handset makers rushing into the Android market is that the odds go up that the offerings will be differentiated enough to stand out. By the end of the year, I'd like to see the handset makers that are producing Android phones bring the platform up to par with that of Windows Mobile, Symbian and other smartphone operating systems in terms of variety on form factors and features. They should take a page from HTC's playbook and come up with software that gives their Android phones both flare and value to users.

Google obviously has to beat the drum for Android, and clearly has high hopes for the platform. And handset makers have an incentive to avoid "me-too" phones that offer the same user experience as the G1. I'll be watching to see how it plays out. --Phil

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