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Android extends beyond cellphones

Posted: 16 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Android? consumer electronics? open source platform?

The Google-designed Android platform is reaching out beyond the mobile phone and will soon enter STBs, TVs, VoIP phones, Karaoke boxes and digital photo frames.

The world of Android is rapidly unfolding in Asia. Software developers, chip suppliers and system companies are all racing toward the same goal: enabling the development of lean and mean, efficient consumer products built on Linux, open source and free software.

Non-smart phone, Android-based embedded products may not reach the commercial market here until early 2011.

But KDDI, Japanese telecommunication service provider, for example, has been reportedly working with Motorola in developing Android-based set-tops.

At this year's CEATEC, Japan's largest electronics show, displays will include prototype Android set-tops "conceptualized by Open Embedded Software Foundation (OESF)," according to the group's chairman Masataka Miura.

OESF was established in Japan in February to create a viable Android-based platform for a variety of embedded products. The group, consisting of 25 companies, will launch several working groups, including: STBs; VoIP; network and security; measurement and control; system core; application and services; and marketing and education.

Members include ARM, KDDI, Japan Cable Laboratories, Alpine Electronics and Fujitsu Software Technologies. Miura said a growing number of semiconductor companies are also interested in participating, including Texas Instruments, Intel, Marvell, Freescale, Qualcomm and Renesas Technology. OESF plans to open offices in Taiwan and South Korea this summer.

This year "will be a critical year to see if Android will be successful," said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat. "So far, it appears to have more market momentum and fewer pitfalls than many of the other Linux-based, open-sourced solutions in the market." More important, "It has the Google brand behind it, which is very powerful," he added.

OESF has not received financial backing from Google. Google reportedly welcomes the growing interest among Asian OEMs and ODMs that are spreading Android in various embedded systems.

PC OEMs such as Hewlett-Packard and AsusTeK have made public their interest in using ARM and Linux for their netbooks, expected to be sold at lower prices than mainstream notebooks.

Android is also appearing in E-Ink's electronic paper kit. Moto Development Group, however, said it's just a technology demonstration and it is not a shipping a product.

Japan's OESF underscores how Android momentum is building much faster and broader, extending beyond netbooks. Its initial focus will be set-top boxes. Android will be used in a Motorola set top called "au Box," according to Miura. The product is essentially KDDI's multipurpose IP set top, or a home gateway, designed to drive fixed mobile broadcast convergence, he explained.

Miura also noted that Japanese consumer electronics company JVC is also considering development of an Android TV.

Android pull
In-Stat's McGregor summed up Android's appeal in four words: "Linux," "open source," and "free." Naturally the free part is very attractive because it can significantly lower software cost.

In addition, McGregor said, Android designed around the smart phone model uses the OS that is "really just and embedded kernel." He explained, "The rest of the software stack plays a more significant role than in previous handsets, including the user interface, the browser and the applications."

In other words, "This embedded kernel model is attractive to other CE devices [beyond cell phones] as they become connected to the Internet and are targeted towards specific usage models."

Android's embedded kernel model, however, could be a double-edged sword.

"Android today is still very basic and rudimentary. As an early stage product, it still needs to improve to be a truly commercially usable open source platform," said Chris Fisher, co-founder and president of zoomMediaPlus.

CE vendors planning to develop Android-based devices have to build things like their own user interface and basic applications like a calendar or database. They also must optimize applications to their platform, said Fisher. "Android does not yet provide tools to analyze and optimize performance so that you can build truly usable consumer products," he added.

Fisher said Android is still far from becoming a commercially usable, open-source platform. It needs more native capabilities to compete with the features and performance of smart phones such as iPhone.

Until it matures, CE vendors need to "take Android, customize it and make it their own," Fisher cautioned. "Most of the mobile guys know this, but outside mobile, I think there is a lot of naivet? about the maturity of Android."

That's where Fisher hopes to fill the gap with his new company zoomMediaPlus. The firm builds test, measurement, evaluation tools that allow Android developers to evaluate and optimize the performance of their products. It also develops native applications and capabilities not provided as a part of the basic Android SDK.

"We hope to help 'non-mobile' companies take advantage of Android quickly and efficiently," said Fisher.

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