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Updated: September 9, 2010 11:20 IST

Open race in the mobile space

D. Murali
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In science fiction, a robot with a human appearance used to be called ‘android,’ a word traceable to 18th century, from modern Latin androids. Greek andro (human) plus eides (form, shape), informs www.etymonline.com.

In the world of computing, Android is a Java-based operating system, ‘an open platform for smartphones from the Open Handset Alliance (www.openhandsetalliance.com),’ says http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com. “Based on Linux, Android includes a library of Java classes for building mobile applications. Enabling any developer to write an application for the phone, it competes with the traditionally closed platforms of cellular carriers.”

Embedded device development

For a long time, cell phone developers comprised a small sect of a slightly larger group of developers known as embedded device developers, traces Jerome (J. F.) DiMarzio in ‘Android: A programmer’s guide’ (www.tatamcgrawhill.com).

Seen as a less ‘glamorous’ sibling to desktop – and later web – development, embedded device development typically got the proverbial short end of the stick as far as hardware and operating system features, because embedded device manufacturers were notoriously stingy on feature support, he notes. “Embedded device manufacturers typically needed to guard their hardware secrets closely, so they gave embedded device developers few libraries to call when trying to interact with a specific device.”

Computer on a chip

For starters, the author explains how an embedded device such as television remote control – which is not seen as an overwhelming achievement of technological complexity – is typically a ‘computer on a chip,’ because when any button is pressed, a chip interprets the signal in a way that has been programmed into the device. “This allows the device to know what to expect from the input device (key pad), and how to respond to those commands (for example, turn on the television). This is a simple form of embedded device programming. However, believe it or not, simple devices such as these are definitely related to the roots of early cell phone devices and development.”

While embedded devices such as PDAs, household security systems, and GPSs moved to somewhat standardised operating system platforms early in the first decade of this century, cell phones have been on a different trajectory, the book recounts. “Nearly since their inception, cell phones have been fringe devices insofar as they run on proprietary software – software that is owned and controlled by the manufacturer, and is almost always considered to be a ‘closed’ system.”

Memory hurdle

A compelling necessity that kept cell phone development out of the hands of the everyday developer was the hardware manufacturers’ solution to the ‘memory versus need’ dilemma, DiMarzio narrates. “Until recently, cell phones did little more than execute and receive phone calls, track your contacts, and possibly send and receive short text messages; not really the ‘Swiss army knives’ of technology they are today. Even as late as 2002, cell phones with cameras were not commonly found in the hands of consumers.”

Towards the late 90s, though small applications such as calculators and games (Tetris, for example) crept their way onto cell phones, the overwhelming function was still that of a phone dialler itself, reminds the author.

Interestingly, as he adds, even if one had then seen the need for Internet browsing, MP3 playing, or any of the multitudes of functions we are accustomed of using today, a major hurdle was of memory and storage capacity required to run the applications. However, with memory prices falling in recent years, ‘many cell phones now have more standard memory than the average PC had in the mid-1990s.’

The OS barrier

The bigger barrier of device operating system began to crack after Google released Android in November 2007 under the Open Handset Alliance, DiMarzio observes. The Alliance is ‘a group of 78 technology and mobile companies who have come together to accelerate innovation in mobile and offer consumers a richer, less expensive, and better mobile experience,’ states the official homepage.

An exciting feature of Android, in the author’s view, is that because of its architecture, third-party applications, including those that are ‘home-grown,’ are executed with the same system priority as those that are bundled with the core system. “This is a major departure from most systems, which give embedded system apps a greater execution priority than the thread priority available to apps created by third-party developers. Also, each application is executed within its own thread using a very lightweight virtual machine.”

Apps aplenty

A recent story titled ‘Top 20 Android Productivity Apps’ by Jake Widman, in www.informationweek.com, mentions that there are an estimated 83,000 active applications in the Android market. “As of last February, Google reported that it and its hardware partners were shipping 60,000 handsets a day. In the first quarter of this year, Android smartphone sales accounted for 7 per cent more of total smartphone sales than Apple’s iPhones and iPad did.”

Featured first in his list is MightyMeeting, armed with which all you need to deliver a presentation is your phone, because you can upload your PowerPoint or Keynote presentations to your MightyMeeting account and then play them via your mobile device. ‘Time Recording’ is another app, to give you an easy way to keep track of your work hours while on the move. A basic punch-in, punch-out time tracker, Time Recording can provide daily, weekly or monthly summaries of how you spent your time, Widman describes.

Other players

The ‘open’ space has competition, as you can see in www.symbian.org, the site of Symbian Foundation which wants ‘to bring to life a shared vision of the most proven, open and complete mobile software platform – and to make it available for free.’ Open software is the basic building block for a converged mobile experience, and by the end of 2010 four billion people are expect to have joined the global mobile conversation, the site notes.

The ‘history’ page has a time line beginning with 1980 when Psion was founded by David Potter, and ending with ‘2008: Symbian acquired by Nokia; Symbian Foundation formed.’ A press release dated August 4 says that at ‘over 27 million devices in the Q2 period’ or ‘almost 300,000 per day, 207 per minute or over three a second,’ Symbian is ‘the most popular smartphone operating system.’

Impressive numbers, but Nokia does not perhaps want to leave things to chance when launching its next new smartphone N8, the ‘world’s first mobile phone to run on Symbian 3 operating system.’ The Finnish company is ‘hiring former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson to help promote the N8. The company is offering people the chance to appear in a short film with the actress that will be recorded entirely on the N8,’ say reports, citing www.starwithpam.com.

A ‘news’ search for ‘mobile phone operating systems’ at the time of writing yields a Fortune story by Seth Weintraub, ‘Will Samsung dump Windows Phone 7 for Android?’ For hardware manufacturers who have a choice of OS to put on their devices, it all comes down to what consumers want, opines Weintraub. With Android popularity skyrocketing, it is risky to spend a lot of time and money developing for Windows Phone 7, even with a monster marketing budget like Microsoft’s, he cautions. “The battle begins this holiday season and expect to be bombarded with advertising from both Microsoft and Google. As consumers, we’ll have more mobile phone OS choices this year than we’ll ever have again.”

For the hands-on tech readers.

**

Tailpiece

“As part of the Foreign Secretary level talks, they will be…”

“Addressing the media jointly?”

“Yes, but after a tweeting session for 10 minutes!”

**

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