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Music News

Google's Android platform poised to take on iPhone

DENVER (Billboard) - One of the most important developments of the past 18 months has been the iPhone’s emergence as a breakthrough platform for music applications. But thanks to Google’s Android platform, Apple’s iPhone will face some meaningful competition this year in the mobile music app market.

Unlike the iPhone, which is a device developed and manufactured by one company, Android is a smart-phone operating system offered to any phone manufacturer that wants to build products around the technology. In addition to integrating such popular Google services as Gmail and Google Maps, Android devices can access the Android Market -- Google’s answer to Apple’s App Store, where users can buy and download a variety of mobile apps from a selection of third-party developers.

Music apps created for the iPhone have already had a huge impact on digital music services. Such access-based services as Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody created free and fee-based apps for the iPhone as their default portable option. Labels and recording artists have followed with custom iPhone apps of their own.

That’s great for the 30 million-plus iPhone users. But developing mobile music apps for more than just iPhone users will be critical if mobile access to digital music is to become mainstream.

BIGGER PIECE OF THE PIE

So far, Android phones have been a mere afterthought, capturing to date just 3.5 percent of the worldwide smart-phone market compared with the 17 percent that the iPhone has harnessed, according to tech research and consulting firm Gartner.

This year, that’s expected to change. Not only will existing Android-based manufacturers like HTC, Motorola and Samsung increase production of sleek new Android handsets in the months ahead, but LG Electronics and Sony Ericsson will join them. By 2012, Android phones will be the second-largest smart-phone platform worldwide with 18 percent of the market, according to Gartner, second only to Nokia. Gartner projects BlackBerry to rank third at 13.9 percent, with the iPhone fourth with 13.6 percent.

Leading the drive is Motorola’s Droid, which is available through Verizon Wireless. According to app analytics firm Flurry, Verizon sold more than 250,000 Droid devices in the first week of availability, benefiting from a massive TV ad campaign. Time magazine named it the top gadget of the year.

By contrast, Google’s newly introduced Nexus One phone, available from Google directly and from partner T-Mobile, sold only an estimated 20,000 units its first week out, according to Flurry. Sales for the Nexus One are sure to grow as Google ups its marketing efforts and adds other wireless operators.

By bringing the cachet of the company’s name to the table, a Google-branded handset might be able to do more to kick-start the Android economy than even a critical mass of third-party developers. The iPhone’s success is as heavily dependent on consumer loyalty to the Apple brand as it is on the iPhone’s capabilities. For Android to compete, it will need a similarly robust brand identity, which Google can provide.

MORE APPS ON TAP?

For Android to be a truly competitive platform for mobile music apps, the number of Android-based apps will need to increase sharply. Currently, there are more than 100,000 apps available for the iPhone, but only 20,000 for Android phones.

Android apps offer some advantages over their iPhone counterparts, including their ability to run in the background, to access content stored on a handset and to interact with Web-based Google tools. But app developers have approached the platform cautiously, with many complaining that the Android Market is too cumbersome to use because of its reliance on Google Checkout, which is used by only a fraction of the number of people (100 million and counting) who have iTunes accounts.

But some solutions are beginning to appear. Mobile operator T-Mobile has added billing support for the Android Market, meaning that users who buy apps can add the charge to their monthly bill rather than use Google Checkout. And with Google and wireless operators offering developers better integration to their respective services -- not to mention promotional support -- the future looks good for Android to expand the market to new devices, operators and users.

Tapulous, Slacker, Spotify, Tunewiki, NPR, Shazam, Pandora, iheartradio and Last.fm already have created Android versions of their popular iPhone apps. In another modest win, Amazon has chosen Android as the only mobile platform capable of accessing its MP3 store, which competes with iTunes.

Next up are apps for recording artists. Sources from three of the four major labels say they are either developing or planning to develop Android-based artist apps that are expected to begin appearing by the end of the year.

“It’s definitely a player,” Pandora founder/chief strategy officer Tim Westergren says of Android. “It’s going to be one of the important parts of the mobile ecosystem.”

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