Android Invasion

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Lyons

How a tiny piece of software created by a few Google engineers is ushering in the mobile revolution and reshaping the fortunes of the world's biggest tech companies.

Nobody ever imagined how quickly the Android mobile-phone platform would take off--not even Andy Rubin, the Silicon Valley engineer who created it. Five years ago Rubin was leading a startup that had just been acquired by Google and was trying to develop software that could power a smart phone. Two years ago the first Android phone hit the market and, frankly, it was a bit of a dud. But the software kept getting better, and top handset makers like HTC, Motorola, and Samsung jumped on board, rolling out dozens of Android-based devices.

What began as a trickle now has turned into a tidal wave. In August Google announced it was activating 200,000 Android phones each day. On at least one day since then, that number surged to more than 250,000, Rubin says. Android now has leapt past Apple to become the biggest smart-phone platform in the United States, the third-biggest worldwide, and by far the fastest growing.

Android is the kind of runaway smash hit that techies spend their careers dreaming about. Rubin, a 47-year-old uber nerd--he has a retina scanner on the front door of his house and robotic helicopters cruise his backyard--has helped build a string of tech companies over the past two decades. But nothing he's done so far compares to what's happening with Android. "This," he says, "is the most fun I've ever had."

The software was written by a small team of engineers tucked away in a nondescript building on the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. While it contains 11 million lines of code, the whole program takes up only 200 megabytes of space, about as much as 40 MP3 songs. Yet despite its tiny size, Android is changing the mobile industry in profound ways, shifting the balance of power from Europe and Asia, the previous leaders, to Silicon Valley and reshaping the fortunes of the world's biggest tech companies.

Android has also transformed Google and its longtime ally Apple into fierce rivals. Until recently, Apple seemed destined to rule the mobile Internet, thanks to the popularity of the iPhone, which was introduced in 2007 and quickly began grabbing market share. But Android has enabled handset makers like Motorola and Samsung to develop credible rivals to the iPhone. This year, as those companies have gained traction, Apple's momentum has stalled. Rubin credits the fact that Android is an open-source program used by dozens of phone makers, while Apple goes it alone, developing its own proprietary hardware and software. In September Apple CEO Steve Jobs got a little hot under the collar of his mock turtleneck and told reporters he didn't believe Google's sales figures. He claimed that if you added together sales of the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, Apple is "ahead of everybody." But by 2014 Android will have 25 percent market share in smart phones, more than double Apple's 11 percent share, according to high-tech researcher IDC. And the first Android-based tablets will begin to ship later this year. (Apple declined to comment for this article.)

This is no mere squabble. The mobile revolution may be the biggest wave ever to hit the world of computing. Just as mainframes gave way to minicomputers, which in turn gave way to personal computers, the PC now is being displaced by smart phones and tablets. By 2013, a decade after smart phones were launched, there will be 1 billion of them in the world--roughly the number of PCs that exist today, three decades after that machine's introduction.

These devices will reach into the furthest corners of the world. By next year 5 billion mobile phones will be in service, out of a total world population of about 7 billion, according to Yankee Group, a high-tech research firm. Most of those will be Afeature phonesA with limited capabilities. …