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Why Android is the New Windows Mobile

This is the part where I eat crow. Though I dismissed Android earlier this year for being an also-ran mobile operating system, saying that it would be a better fit for netbooks, Gartner now says that Google’s OS will become number two within three years. That’s right. Number two, right behind Symbian and ahead of iPhone and BlackBerry. How did this happen? Because Android is becoming the new Windows Mobile.

Earlier this week, Microsoft announced Windows Mobile 6.5, which offers a host of welcome improvements, including a more touch-friendly interface, a better browser, the My Phone backup service, and a new marketplace for apps. But if you look at the highest profile devices hitting the shelves that run this OS, such as the HTC Imagio, it’s highly doubtful that the user will know what’s running under the hood (until they see the Windows button, that is). That’s because HTC’s TouchFLO 3D interface replaces Microsoft’s; even the stock browser is Opera, not Internet Explorer Mobile. Meanwhile, Samsung has its own TouchWiz interface, and the handset maker has an SDK for this widget platform.

Android phones are following a similar path, except Google’s partners are going even deeper when it comes to adding their own platforms on top of the OS. Motorola’s Motoblur, which will be available on the Cliq from T-Mobile, is particularly ambitious. This software offers a highly customizable home screen with easy access to “happenings,” which include your friends’ status updates from Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. It also unifies your e-mails, pictures, and text messages. Plus, you can update your status and broadcast it to multiple services at once. When I asked a product manager for the Cliq whether he could run Motoblur on Windows Mobile, he answered that Android gave Motorola even more flexibility because of its open source nature.

HTC, on the other hand, seems to be equally supportive of Android and Windows Mobile. In fact, HTC Sense, a user experience the company debuted on the Android-powered Hero, will also be inside the Windows Mobile-powered HD2 when it comes stateside early next year. These phones don’t have the same interface, but in both cases the goal of the underlying technology is to make it easier for users to access people and content; to integrate calls, e-mails, photos, status updates, and more (to eliminate menu digging); and to provide unexpected touches, such as turning your phone over to silence a ring.

During an interview earlier this week, Windows Mobile’s director of product management told me that Android would have trouble gaining traction when compared to the iPhone and Windows Phones, because “there’s so much fragmentation that will happen on the Android side.” I would argue that this very fragmentation, this differentiation among handsets running Android, is propelling its success. And this fragmentation is also what’s keeping Windows Phones viable as we wait for a much bigger overhaul of Microsoft’s mobile OS.

When I say that Android is the new Windows Mobile, it’s not an insult. It’s a compliment, and a testament to just how quickly Google’s partners are making its platform the one to beat.

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.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, 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.