What about Android in education?

The T-mobile launch of the first Android phone (The G1) begs the question - does this already fragmented world need another mobile operating system? For me specifically how will this new OS affect those of us trying to build useful educational software?

I’ve been following Android since the first announcement last November with interest and excitement at the potential disruption that it could bring to the mobile eco-system and our niche of that eco-system. From my early assessment of Android it was clear that had the typical Computer Science led over engineering of a Google project which mean it was doing some really radical things from technical perspective. I really like how the system has been built and how they have got over the low resource problems in a much more creative way than the iPhone OS with it’s lack of background processes.

I was luckily enough to interview Rich Miner in January of this year and he gave me a picture of how seriously Google and the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) were taking the openess of Android. Not only will the OS become Open Source when it hits version 1.0, but it is open to 3rd party apps. The architecture is so open that you can supply alternate programs to manage any task on the phone. The system is so open you can  override the core software that comes with the phone if you choose and replace the default dialer with another. Rich made it clear to me that all OHA members are required to keep the platform open - and to implement the core of the OS.

A core part of the power of the iPhone solution is the powerful, simple and well used distribution and payment mechanism that is iTunes. Google have tried to address the lack of an iTunes App Store with the Android marketplace - but missed the point and made it complex by involving operators in the billing - we can only hope this soon gets simplified. The G1 also comes with an unlimited internet connection so that is a match for the iPhone - we can only assume all other Android phones will also. The T-mobile G1 will also launch with an MP3 store from Amazon - one of the few competitors for iTunes - now if Amazon, OHA and operators could come up with a simplified App Marketplace - that would be interesting!

The big worry with Android is that it will quickly fragment as device manufacturers and operators fall into their old habits but Rich gave many convincing arguments as to why this would not happen. The least of which is that members of OHA have all pledged not to.

What worries me most about all the devices is that there is no easy way for consumers to understand that this phone and that phone are similar. If you get a Windows phone you know that it is windows - there will be at least a sticker or logo. Most consumers also know about the Java brand even if they don’t understand it. The iPhone brand is strong even if it is only a single phone. How will consumers know that a T-mobile G1 can run the same software as a Motorola G345 (say). The only brand on the G1 is Google not Android or OHA - will this remain on all Android phones?

Until it is clear what consumer reaction to the G1 is and we can also see how other operators take up Android a lot of these questions won’t matter. This creates a chicken and egg situation: the hope for Android phones is that they will be seen by consumers as internet and application phones in the same way that the iPhone is perceived. for this perception to be true there needs to be lots of apps that consumers talk about and use a lot that will persuade others to get a similar phone. This in turn relies on developers writing for Android which means there will have to be enough users to justify the investment in developing for a quite different platform.

What does all of this mean for education? In my opinion Android is a slow burner - it will take time until there are enough devices out there. For 15-21 year olds it might grab a big marketshare if it is cheap and or  cool but so far there is little indication of either. It also lacks a non-phone companion like the iPhone which makes it a lot less appealing for schools to recommend. I cannot see Android worrying Sony or Nintendo in the same way the iPhone must currently be doing.

Standby though there are rumours that Android is really targetted at more than phones and it may become the defacto low power OS on phones, set top boxes, netbooks and many other smaller devices. If it does you can bet that Android will have a big impact on education in developed and developing economies.