Android's Future? It's Not Phones...

What’s the biggest buzz these days surrounding Google’s hyped open-source platform for smart phones?  Acer, MSI, ASUS, and others are looking toward the Android OS for a new class of low-cost netbooks powered by ARM processors, presumably because Google has become synonymous with cloud computing—and because it has much more name recognition than more-obscure Linux distributions like Ubuntu, Moblin, or Xandros.

Many industry watchers believe that at least some of these devices will debut at Computex in Taiwan this June, putting serious pressure on Microsoft and Intel. And earlier this week we learned that little-known company SkyTone will be releasing an Android netbook with a 7-inch display and ARM11 processor. Rumored price: only $100.

So why all the talk about Android on pint-size PCs? Wasn’t this OS supposed to shake up the smart phone world? A few reasons might explain why Android’s partners seem to be getting cold feet. First, carrier support is currently limited to T-Mobile, although it's certainly noteworthy that it has surpassed the 1 million-sales mark of the G1. Sprint is technically a member of the Open Handset Alliance, but it’s too busy trying to get the Palm Pre out the door before the next-generation iPhone blocks out the sun. As for handset makers, they seem to be aligning with Windows Mobile, despite the fact that the 6.5 upgrade offers little more than some much-needed interface tweaks.

One of Android’s issues is that it doesn’t have a clear focus. Quick, name something that Android does better than any other smart phone platform? Multitouch? Apple has that covered. Business e-mail? That goes to BlackBerry. Web browsing? Android’s good, but not superior. Multimedia? Apple again. T-Mobile was reportedly fishing for names for its next Android handset, codenamed Magic, but there’s no easy way to sum up what makes Android different. And the existing name—the T-Mobile G1 with Google—is just confusing; Google’s services are in almost every other smart phone already. It's no wonder then that a survey just released by the Yankee Group says that only 4 percent of respondents were planning on buying an Android-based phone.

Google’s ambitions are also apparently giving developers pause. At the recent CTIA Wireless 2009 event, one executive told me he didn’t see why he should embrace Android when Google could easily turn around and roll out a service that would make his app irrelevant. Think about it. Google Maps does a lot (but not all) of what many other location-based apps can do, and it recently got even smarter with the addition of Latitude. Gmail for Android (and the iPhone) now supports offline access, and I can easily see Docs support coming next. And Google Voice, assuming that comes to Android, would certainly make VoIP app developers think twice.

In short, the more feature-rich and ubiquitous Google’s services become, the less need there is for a Google phone, never mind a family of them.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.