It seems Google has finally realized Android is a viable competitor to the iPhone — it did outsell the iPhone in the US in Q1 2010, after all — and it has awoken from its slumber looking for a bite of Apple. At their I/O conference today, Google unveiled the details of their upcoming 2.2 version of Android, codenamed Froyo, and there’s plenty to get excited about.

Froyo’s tasty new sprinkles
Exactly what’s most interesting about Android 2.2 depends on who you ask, but Google points out some key areas of focus in its intro video:

  • Speed: A new just-in-time compiler gives Froyo 2-5x faster performance compared to Android 2.1. Obviously your phone hardware and software will determine the actual improvement, but speed is a good thing.
  • APIs and Services: New APIs allow messages to be sent from a Web server directly to your phone via the cloud — send map directions to your Google Maps on your phone, for instance. It’s not clear yet exactly how this will work, and whether all such messages must travel through Google’s servers. You can also back up app data to the cloud automatically and install apps on the SD card (a long-awaited improvement).
  • USB Tethering and Wi-fi Hotspot: The new version enables any Android phone to be your portable Internet hookup, either via tethering, or by acting as a portable wi-fi hotspot, much like the Palm Pre Plus and HTC Evo. Great news for owners of the non-3G iPad and anyone wanting to browse the Web on their laptop while driving. (Tip: You shouldn’t do that.)
  • Browser Improvements: The integrated browser has been juiced with dramatically improved Javascript performance, and Google claims it is now the world’s fastest mobile browser. Which is great, because Android 2.2 also supports…
  • Flash 10.1: Adobe’s long-awaited “No, really, we mean it this time” mobile Flash implementation arrives with Froyo, and might even actually see the light of day. Adobe has been working closely with Google on this for some time, and the initial results look promising, but whether it will be truly usable across a wide range of implementations remains to be seen.
  • Android Market Improvements: Apps can now update themselves, and users can update all their apps at once. The new version also adds new error reporting, making it easier for developers to track and fix bugs.
  • But wait, there’s more: The update includes quite a few other new features, including over-the-air app installation from a Web browser, streaming music from iTunes, browser access to the compass and camera, a built-in task manager, UI improvements, and more.

But will it make a difference?
Unfortunately for Google, though, Android faces the same uphill battle it always has, for a variety of reasons. To start with, while Froyo’s improvements are welcome, they are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Most of the new features are simply conveniences — over-the-air syncing, music streaming, speed improvements — which are unlikely to drive sales among the less tech-savvy. Other additions, like tethering and a wi-fi hotspot feature, are carrier-dependent, and already available on a variety of phones.

Flash 10.1 is a nice bonus, and may well prove to be Android’s trump card if Google and Adobe play it right — the “real Web” is simply not possible on a device that doesn’t support Flash. But they need to make a compelling argument for why people should care, amidst Apple’s constant drumbeat of Flash-hating. Flash isn’t going away anytime soon, whatever Apple might want to pretend, and Adobe’s recent improvements in Flash CS5 continue to make a strong argument for its existence. In the mobile world, however, people have gotten used to a Web without Flash — which means Adobe needs to prove it really is essential. A strong showing of mobile-optimized Flash sites, unimpeachable performance in the real world and an accompanying marketing push to get the uncommitted on board could help turn the opinion tide back in the direction of Flash.

Revenge of the carriers
In the end, though, Froyo’s success is in the hands of the carriers, and that will continue to be its Achilles heel. The carriers have been slow to update their devices with new versions of Android, leading to platform fragmentation. Though Froyo is designed to start moving the core of those changes into automatic updates, it will be a while before that plan is reality. Device manufacturers and carriers want to differentiate their offerings to remain competitive, which will always work against Google’s desire to maintain a consistent and cohesive platform. Third-party OS layers like HTC’s Sense UI and Motorola’s Motoblur also impede the platform’s progress, even as they add popular features, because their creators are the gatekeepers to Android updates on phones that use them. And of course, since Google doesn’t profit directly from the success of Android, it doesn’t have a huge incentive to spend millions advertising it, which leaves Android marketing up to the carriers, and out of Google’s control.

Apple has none of these problems. It also has the smartphone platform with the largest and most popular app library, maintains high customer satisfaction and has higher profit margins on its phones than any of its smartphone competitors. Android already does many things the iPhone doesn’t, and Froyo only adds to that list — the question is whether Google can get people to not only see Android as a compelling choice, but to seek it out over the flashy new iPhone that’s just around the corner.

» Read coverage at Gizmodo, Engadget and Google

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