Mobile World Congress is the show where the next generation of mobile phones is laid out: in a market where a handset can claim to be cutting edge for barely six or nine months, rainy January Barcelona usually plays host to a range of competing technologies, vying for the attention of the buyers who come to sign serious deals.
This year, however, nearly every conversation ends with one idea: Google and its Android Mobile phone operating system.
Although Nokia’s announcement of its partnership with Microsoft threatened to overshadow MWC, in fact every major handset announced has used Android and almost every tablet is Android-based.
And Google’s Android stand features is a bravura show of confidence: there aren’t just scores of app developers showing off their wares – there’s a helter-skelter, a range of 86 Android badges that show goers are eagerly collecting, and models of the Android robot.
Crucial to the success of Android, however, is not just the many items of hardware on display: it’s the growing army of developers.
Currently, many of the best Android applications, adding extra, personalised functions to each user’s phone, are still made by Google. This is not the case with Apple’s iOS, which has been embraced by developers and is now making many of them serious money.
Even that, however, is changing: British company Swiftkey, for instance, won a leading industry award at the show for its app, which extends predictive text messaging to entire emails: it knows one third of all the words you want to type before you’ve even pressed a single key.
Apple has yet to offer a competitor, although a new iPhone is expected in the fairly near future, along with a cheaper model.
Analysts at Informa have suggested, in fact, that a burgeoning number of cheaper Android devices could take the shine off the product: Alcatel Lucent announced a model that could cost as little as €60, but the prices from Chinese manufacturers are likely to go lower than that in the near future.
What’s of more importance is likely to be the evolution of Android’s ecosystem: although it was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Motorola’s Atrix handset offers not only a top smartphone experience, but it also plugs in to a laptop-style dock or into a media dock to stream video to your television.
The chips powering the latest smartphones are now so powerful there’s a real possibility that they replace devices from DVD players to netbooks within a few generations.
Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play phone is already making a pitch to oust portable gaming devices thanks to its PlayStation features.
Samsung’s Galaxy SII is making a similar play for the growing market in phones that are as comfortable in a business environment as they are at home.
If the momentum is going Google’s way in phones, its tablet strategy has yet to forge ahead: Motorola will be releasing the first tablet using Honeycomb, a version of Android specifically for tablets, but the software is not finished yet.
After Xoom, updated versions of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab will follow with the same software, and LG is introducing a 3D tablet too.
But the wait was too much for HTC: its new tablet will launch with an older version of the operating system and then be upgraded.
The company has seen the benefits Apple has reaped from simply having a good product in the market place.
And price, too, will be crucial: Xoom will initially sell for slightly more than the current iPad when it launches in America, but Motorola argues it offers significantly greater features, including connectivity to America’s new 4G networks.
And in fact, there are other operating systems on show: Meego, developed and now dumped by Nokia, and HP’s WebOS, also have decent devices on display.
The HP TouchPad, with its wireless charging and docks that automatically turn it into, say a photoframe or an ereader, is impressive but not on sale yet either. When it launches, however, Eric Cador, says it will compete in a mid-market that does not yet even really exist.
Platforms, however, without the support of developers that Apple and Google are enjoying will struggle. Chipset maker Qualcomm currently supports eight high level operating systems: “We don’t know what that number will be in the future”, the company’s Enrico Salvatori told me,“but it won’t be eight”.
No wonder, then, that new software from companies such as Myriad offers the chance to run Android apps on other devices, with a programme that it hopes to sell to handset manufacturers called Alien Dalvik. So Android is now so big, there’s even a nascent ecosystem to sell the ecosystem to other people.
So Android, indisputably, has come of age. In Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt’s keynote speech to MWC he showed off a new movie editor on the Motorola Xoom, but more than that he talked almost poetically of a world, enabled by computers, where people are “Not lost, neverlonely, never bored”.
Little wonder expert consultants Accenture talk about a new phenomenon: “Android everywhere”.