Earlier this week, Google launched the widely rumoured Nexus One, its branded smartphone, in the US. With functionality designed by Google, built by Taiwanese mobile phone maker HTC and packing the latest version of Google’s own mobile operating system, Android 2.1, it’s the first tangible realisation of Google’s vision for mobile hardware.
There aren’t many other companies one can see supplanting Apple’s commanding position over the smartphone world. With the Android Market and the Open Handset Alliance, its cadre of mobile telephony partners, which includes T-Mobile, Motorola and HTC, Google might be playing catch-up, but with mobile increasingly driving use of the internet, the company has considerable reason and resources to become pivotal. Statistics released by advertising server AdMob show that advertising requests on Android devices rose by a factor of five between June and December 2009. Its statistics for August suggest that Android had seven per cent of overall OS share, having risen from two per cent in February, compared to iPhone's 40 per cent and Symbian's 34.
"It's a major step in the phone market," says Mike DeLaet, director of sales at mobile games publisher Glu Mobile. "Google has leapfrogged the competition in terms of hardware capabilities and this should continue to dramatically close the gap between traditional portable gaming devices and mobile phones."
Games have been a big part of Apple's success so far. The App Store recently celebrated its three billionth download from its 100,000 published apps, and games rule the App Store to the extent that Apple issued with its rundown of best-selling apps in 2009 a specifically non-game one to ensure they’d get an airing.
That games can play a similar role in Nexus One's future is supported by powerful base specifications – Qualcomm’s powerful Snapdragon CPU running at 1GHz, and 512mb of RAM (compared to iPhone original and 3G’s 128mb and 3GS’ 256mb). And it has a high definition screen – 480×800 pixels compared to iPhone’s 320×480 pixels. But its current lack of multi-touch control, which is somewhat mitigated by its inclusion of a trackball for scrolling and other interaction, presents clear challenges to developers wishing to convert iPhone games and apps to it.
Not that games have taken the same prominence in Google's communications on Android and Nexus One that they have in Apple's since App Store's launch. But with Android Market now boasting a specific 'games' tab next to 'apps', they're part of Google's plan, according DeLaet of Glu, which has produced Android versions of various leading gaming franchises, including Modern Warfare, Guitar Hero, Tony Hawk and Diner Dash. "Google sees content as being a major driver in the adoption of Android and games are a very important piece of that puzzle," he says. On whether Google has actively approached Glu to develop game making on the platform he only says the the company has "a very good working relationship with Google".
Glu's Guitar Hero 5 and Modern Warfare 2 for Android
Simon Oliver, founder of successful iPhone game Rolando developer HandCircus, has a rather different view. He and HandCircus have not been approached, and says the development of Android as a game platform actually rather contradicts Google’s essential corporate direction. “Google's strategy has been to move away from native Apps and focus on the web as the platform for applications,” he says. “The success of the App Store made the inclusion of the Android Market a necessity for the Android platform, but their general strategy, as evident in other projects such as Chrome OS, is toward applications running in the browser. [Google Engineering VP] Vic Gundotra went on record at [conference] MobileBeat to state that Google believes that the browser "will become the platform that matters". And browsers tend not to grant the low-level hardware access that games generally require, particularly those running on devices with relatively low processing resources.
Android features another sticky problem – it won’t run apps from its host device's external storage. All apps therefore must fit in its 512mb of internal storage – 256mb on many older Android phones. iPhone's Rolando 2, meanwhile, comes to 57mb – and let's not talk about iPhone Myst's 727mb.
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