Critics are hounding Google over security holes and incompatibility fears, but Google's Android mobile operating system is still on track for commercial launch later this year. It'll soon be on a phone near you.
Android, Google's much-hyped foray into the mobile phone market, is building a strong following among device manufacturers, but early prototypes show there is still a long way to go before it's ready for prime time.
Since the Android Software Development Kit (SDK) was released last November, developers have been busy figuring out how best to make use of it. Promoted as the ‘future of mobile phones', Android is an open source mobile software stack incorporating an operating system, middleware, interface and application suite.
A prototype Android handset
What sets it apart from rivals such as Symbian and Windows Mobile is the way in which developers can add and remove features and change the interface to create their own unique offering. Based on the open-source Linux kernel, Android uses a specially designed virtual machine enabling it to run on a variety of different hardware platforms.
While this all sounds like mobile computing nirvana, a number of challenges have already arisen. Last week US-based Core Security announced it had found multiple vulnerabilities within the Android SDK.
"Several vulnerabilities have been found in Android's core libraries for processing graphic content in some of the most used image formats (PNG, GIF an BMP)," Core Security said in its advisory. The company also found problems with so-called heap and integer overflows that could be used to compromise a phone running the software.
Google's Android: running on an ARM-powered prototype handset
Responding to this, the Open Handset Alliance - a consortium of hardware, software and telecommunications companies promoting Android - pointed out the SDK is an early release and likely to change before it's ready for end users.
There are also fears that Android's very openness could prove troubling for developers, with no guarantees that applications written for one flavour will run on another. Rather than creating a single new platform for mobile phones, some fear Android could eventually create thousands.
But such concerns are doing little to dampen enthusiasm. At the recent Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona, APCmag.com had to fight through crowds of interested onlookers to get a glimpse of a range of Android prototypes on display.
Interestingly, the prototypes were not being shown by handset vendors, but by chip designers and manufacturers keen to show how the software behaved when running on their silicon.
At the stand of processor designer ARM, an Android-powered prototype device was attracting lots of attention. Housed in a rather dull grey case with serial numbers etched into every surface, the handset gave an indication of what a finished Android interface might look like.
A series of icons along the bottom of the screen gave one-click access to applications such as email, web browsing, contacts, SMS and voice. A full QWERTY keyboard allowed easy text entering.
During a hands-on demo, the interface seemed smooth although obviously still in alpha form. Trying to delve too far beyond the initial application screens yielded little in the way of functionality.
ARM mobile computing platform solutions director Bob Morris told APCmag.com that the device was meant only as a "concept of what might be manufactured" by a handset company.
An Android demo screen
Morris says a key benefit of the Android platform is that it does not differentiate between its on-board applications and those created and installed by third parties. All have equal access to core functions, meaning they can be customised in any way a developer wants.
"I think you are going to see a large range of Android devices that may have very different interfaces and capabilities," he says.
"Our aim is just to show people what Android is like," he said. "It will be up to the device manufacturers to determine what sort of form factors will appeal to the particular market segments they are targeting."
Despite the desire to make Android as ‘open' as possible, it's obvious Google wants it to be tied as closely as possible to its own suite of services. The demonstrations seen by APCmag.com at the mobile conference showed one-click access to things such as Gmail, Google Maps, News and Search.
Google's argument for pushing Android is that the mobile device category is being held back by having too many competing operating system platforms. Somewhat paradoxically, the company believes that by creating another one the situation will become better.
There's no doubt that a huge groundswell of enthusiasm exists for Android, as the crowds showed. But whether that enthusiasm translates into an operating system that changes the face of mobile phones remains to be seen.