Android faces fight for smartphone users, despite Google's update plan

Google will soon reinforce the mobile OS with new features. But Android-based phones likely won't leapfrog rivals such as the iPhone.

An Android update that Google Inc. plans to release soon will include new features sought by users and developers since the mobile operating system became available last year. But even so, it doesn't appear that Android-based phones will outdo rivals like the iPhone on functionality.

That raises questions about how well the Android technology will fare against Apple Inc.'s device, which itself is due to be augmented by an iPhone 3.0 software update this summer, and other smartphones such as Palm Inc.'s new Palm Pre.

"Google and the Android folks have a real challenge in the market on their hands," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC in Northboro, Mass. "They basically have to become more than equivalent to what's already out there."

Google last week provided an early look at the software developer's kit for Version 1.5 of Android, which adds support for touch-based soft keyboards, live folders, speech recognition and other features. The full SDK is expected to be released later this month, and Google said that Android 1.5 will be offered as an over-the-air upgrade shortly thereafter.

Gold predicted that the near-simultaneous releases of Android 1.5, iPhone 3.0 and the Palm Pre will ignite an unprecedented battle for market share among smartphone vendors. But he and other analysts said that some of what's coming in Android 1.5 is widely available in rival smartphones now. "Voice command and touch [capabilities] are critical for Android phones, because almost everybody else has that already," Gold said.

Despite the buzz generated by Android, the version of the open-source technology that debuted last fall on the T-Mobile G1 phone has the feel of a beta release.

Android 1.5 will provide users with "a lot of fixes that probably should have been in the first release," said Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney. "Overall, it's a nice improvement, a necessary upgrade — but a bit late."

The update also isn't likely to do much to spur enterprise interest in Android-based phones. BlackBerries and Windows Mobile devices remain the favored handhelds among IT managers because of their security and management capabilities.

In comparison, Android has "almost no appeal with the corporate market," Gold said. Of 350 IT professionals that his firm surveyed last fall, only 4% said that they expected to deploy Android phones within the next three years.

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