Enter the Android

Google's mobile operating system is winning new customers the world over. We are sold too.

The dictionary defines an "Android" as part-man, part-machine. We do not have plastics or electronics humming inside our bodies (okay, there are bust-enhancers and pacemakers) yet, but we have amazing technology at our fingertips today, thanks to mobile devices.

One instance of such an incredible tool comes in the form of the Android operating system (OS) for mobile phones that has taken some time to get traction among customers but now that it has got there, boy, is it sticky! Late in April, mobile phones running on Android, an offering from search giant Google, outsold Apple's popular iPhone in North America, though the Steve Jobs-run company remains far ahead in smartphone global sales.

So, should you too get an Android-powered mobile device?

 Top 5 Androiders

1. Samsung i5700 Galaxy Spica
Rs 14,750

2. LG GW620
Rs 19,000

3. Motorola Milestone
Rs 33,000 4. HTC Legend

Rs 26,000 5. SonyEricsson Xperia X10i
Rs 35,000

- Prices are indicative only.

The Android OS, by design, has two inherent advantages. The first is that it is available to a multitude of device manufacturers, not just because it is open-source but also thanks to some big pushes from Google. The second is that, like the Apple iPhone operating system, Android also supports touch-screen devices-the new rage among mobile devices. And with the latest release of the software, version 2.1, it also supports so-called capacitive multi-touch (pinch to zoom).

If you decide to shop for an Android device, you will not be short of choice. There are Android devices starting at price-points below Rs 15,000, such as the Samsung Galaxy Spica, LG GW920 and HTC Tattoo, all the way up to the Rs 30,000-plus SonyEricsson Xperia X10 or Motorola Milestone (still cheaper than the 16 GB iPhone 3GS, which retails at Rs 35,500).

How do Android applications stack up against competition? E-mail, for instance. The software is from Google, therefore the G-mail experience is superb. You will need an application, however, to link back to your office's Microsoft Exchange server. Much like the iPhone, "office e-mail" connectivity is not the main selling point of Android devices. That said, the "Chrome Lite" browser on Android devices and on the newer multitouch devices is excellent.

The Android Marketplace is a great place to find a whole host of interesting applications, many of which are free. Some like Google's new Goggles visual search service, Google SkyMap and other applications such as Evernote, Dropbox and Google Maps' voice-aided turn-by-turn navigation are fun to use as also useful (see Top 5 Android Apps).

Still, it is not as if there are no cribs with Android. Strangely, for an open source software, not all devices can be upgraded to the latest version of the OS, because the hardware may not support it. To run the latest Android 2.1 release for example, a device needs to be multi-touch.

Nonetheless, Android-run devices could make a big splash in India. Local device marketers are keen to push touch devices in India and are already speaking in Google's language. Later this year, we could well see sub-Rs 10,000 Android devices and the OS could easily become the leading smart-phone platform in India, too.

Post-script: To use an Android device to its full capabilities you need to have a Google account. In addition, you will need a data connection to download as well as use most applications. Check with your operator for data plans.

Top 5 Android Apps

  • Google Goggles
    Simply put, this is Visual Search. You take a picture with your camera and it does the rest like searching the web. Works with devices running Android 1.6 and above.
  • Evernote
    Android does not have a native notetaking application, but Evernote allows you to sync notes, photos and files across multiple devices and platforms.
  • Layar
    Augmented Reality anyone? Using a combination of your camera and GPS location, Layar gives you information of places and events near you.
  • Facebook for Android
    The iPhone and iPod Touch version is better, but the way the application syncs with your contacts is amazing, as long as your friends enter their numbers in the proper format.
  • Google Sky Map
    If you are an amateur astronomer this cool application uses your GPS location to explain the night sky.

The Smart World of Operating Systems

  • iPhone OS: Runs the Apple iPhone and now the iPad. This is possibly the smoothest device operating system. However, it does not allow multi-tasking. Some changes might occur with the next generation OS, the iPhone OS 4.0, expected in July.
  • BlackBerry OS: Research in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry, is rolling out a whole new version 5.0 across its newer devices such as the Bold 9700 and Storm 2 which, among other things, will have a vastly improved Internet browser.
  • Symbian OS: The latest iteration of Nokia's Symbian OS, called Symbian U^3 will appear on the N8 and N9 devices later this year. Nokia expects this version to take on Apple and the deluge of Android devices.
  • Windows Phone 7: Microsoft's latest operating system wowed observers with its slick interface, better integration with desktop machines (Mobile Office, for example) and web services.
  • Meego: Another operating system from Nokia, this time jointly with Intel, a new Linux-based platform for high-end mobilers, tablet computers and netbooks.
  • Bada: Korean phone maker Samsung, which makes several Android devices also decided to enter the smartphone operating system space with Bada, whose first devices should be launched later this year.