Android Rising

The top 7 things to know right now about the hot mobile product

When Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin roller bladed onto a New York stage in September 2008 to launch the first Android phone—the HTC-manufactured G1— some believed Google’s long-awaited “iPhone killer” had finally arrived. It hadn’t—yet. While Apple’s iPhone and its iOS ecosystem is still a hit among consumers, developers, and advertisers, Android’s fortune is slowly changing. The operating system now spans more than 400 devices on 231 mobile carriers in 123 countries, Google says, and the sheer number of eyeballs landing on Android screens is making the platform more appealing than ever. And despite being perceived as a “poor man’s iPhone” by some consumers, many others are beginning to look beyond Apple’s white glow to the underlying positives of its less flashy competitor. Adweek surveyed analysts, industry insiders, and developers to get the latest lowdown on the platform that could still give Apple a run for its money.

1. SUDDENLY, IT’S THE PLATFORM OF VOLUME

Apple may win on user experience, but Android wins on numbers.

“Over the past 18 months, Android has experienced a meteoric rise from a market leadership perspective,” says Linda Barrabee, an NPD Group analyst.

In the last three quarters, according to NPD, the phones accounted for at least half of all smartphone sales in the U.S. And a recent Nielsen study found that 43 percent of all U.S. smartphone owners have an Android device, and that 56 percent of those who bought a smartphone in the last three months went with an Android.

The platform’s open nature means manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC, and Motorola can—and do—offer Android phones. And they’re offering increasingly sophisticated products at lower prices and with flexible payment plans.

Apple now offers the iPhone 3GS for free with a two-year contract, but Android customers can choose from a variety of phones and service plans, including free phones with cheaper contracts or low-cost phones with prepaid or pay-as-you go plans.

“Android, if it remains unchanged on its path,” says Marcus Startzel, senior vice president of sales for Millennial Media, “is becoming the new default operating system for handsets.”

2. PLATFORM FOR 'THE PEOPLE' (EVEN TECHIES AND HIPSTERS)

With an Android phone at nearly every price point, the platform is attracting a broader mix than Apple.

A recent Nielsen study reported that 66 percent of users had annual incomes under $100,000 vs. 52 percent of Apple owners. Also, Android leads its competitors in penetration among African Americans, grabbing 37 percent of the market. RIM’s BlackBerry follows with 30 percent and the iPhone just 16 percent.

Android appeals to the 18-34 demo, according to a July smartphone study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, so it’s a promising platform for advertisers.

Android’s influence extends beyond national borders too, pushing through to some developing markets around the world, particularly in Asia, at a faster pace than Apple.

“There’s a huge market of cheap Android devices, which allows you to broadcast rich media to those devices in [parts of the] market that Apple does not exist at all,” says Tomer Weiss, program manager for MediaMind.

3. CONSISTENCY YOUR THING? THEN TAKE A DEEP BREATH

One criticism has dogged Android from the start: fragmentation. Its open nature means dozens of manufacturers and more than 200 carriers globally can distribute Android phones. So different versions of the software on phones with different screen sizes, user interfaces, and capabilities all operate in the wild at once.

Mobile ad developers say an Android ad can take from 25 percent to double the amount of time it takes to develop an ad for Apple. NPD’s Barrabee says a developer told her, “I write it once for Apple [and] three times for Android.”

But some in the ad industry feel fragmentation issues are not as pronounced as they once were and  expect the next version of the operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich—due out by year’s end—to unify the Android platform even further.

Michael Nicholas, chief strategy officer for digital agency Isobar, while emphasizing the platform has to continue to address the fragmentation issue, says by the time brands want to reach huge swaths of the mobile public with the most robust apps, the issue will likely be solved.

“Is it really keeping us up at night? No,” says Nicholas. “But does it have the potential to? For sure.”