Google making a big Android push on the eve of iPhone update

Time to take an interest in its own platform, it seems

Google making a big Android push on the eve of iPhone update
June is shaping up to be the smartphone month, with Apple expected to reveal details of a new iPhone model (models?) and the Palm Pre ready for its US launch.

And, to be honest, Google hasn’t shown a great deal of interest in its own smartphone platform recently, though it seems the internet giant might be making a big push in the face of such stiff competition.

Only a few days after Sony Ericsson said it wouldn’t be rushing into the smartphone scene until the 2.0 version of the Android software was ready, Google made the jump and showed off the next iteration of its operating system.

Dubbed Donut (following the company’s slightly peculiar fondness for digital confectionery), the next version of Android was revealed during the Google I/O keynote speech, it seems the company is going back to its roots - searching.

The new universal search system will allow users to search, well, universally. Entering a search string will look through the internet and the phone itself in one go, matching up contacts, calendars, music, online information, files and even results within compatible programs.

This will give developers access to Google’s text-to-speech API, so voice recognition can be used for searches from within applications. Donut will also look back to one of Palm’s greatest assets, handwriting gestures, for inclusion in its deep search system.

Exactly when Donut will be available is unclear right now, though we really don’t expect it too soon since Cupcake 1.5 has only just been rolled out, and that was apparently no small task for the bods at T-Mobile. So the 18 Android phones Google has promised the mobile world before Christmas aren’t likely to include the updated operating system - at least not during launch.

According to the New York Times, Google’s senior director for mobile platforms and spearhead of the Android project Andy Rubin says eight or nine different manufacturers have let Google in on their current development of Android powered hardware.

Speaking at an Android developers conference in San Francisco, Rubin outlined the three options available for handset manufacturers who want to embed the OS in their new devices.

While each is free, there are certain obligations attached to some, including Google branding on the phone, an agreement not to censor applications and inclusion of certain Google functions on the handset.

The reasons behind these slightly different versions of Android appears to be an effort to make the operating system more appealing to carriers (rather than manufacturers, who already love it on account of it being free) who are proving to be a bit suspicious and unsure of its saleability.

Therefore, Rubin admits that he’s expecting uptake of the 18 to 20 new Android handsets currently in the works to be very slow in the US, though he believes it’s not so much a general caution over the popularity of the platform so much as the competitive domestic market encouraging carriers to want customised versions of the OS and “give themselves the edge”.

From the end users' point of view, the carriers are right to be careful, however. It’s not the hardware that attracts customers, but what you can do with that hardware, and right now the Android Market is a long way behind the application-rich iPhone App Store.

In an effort to continue drumming up developer support for its platform, Google has just launched the second round of its Android Developer Challenge, which administers some pretty significant cash grants to the best ideas on offer.

Submissions will open in August, with an overall first prize of a staggering $250,000, a second place award of $150,000 and $125,000 going to third place. Along with the other prizes and grants on offer, TechCruch calculates that Google has put aside something in the region of $2 million to encourage developers over to its cause.

It also wants to include the current Android user base in helping to decide on the Challenge’s winner, using an on-device application that will download random submissions to the competition for users to rate. The winners of this public round of voting will then form the top 20 applications for each of the ten categories.

And, ultimately, this is what it’s all about for Google - getting Android powered devices into people’s hands. All the competitions, new handset designs, conferences and firmware updates count for nothing if people aren’t actually making everyday use of the system.

Fortunately, a slew of HTC Magic handsets hit the streets thanks to a generous handout of free units to all the attendees of the Google I/O event - many of which are apparently now on eBay.

But this is ultimately no bad thing for Google. The popularity of the listings has pushed the bidding for handsets to some pretty outlandish heights, so it’s a good indication that the public is looking for hot new Android hardware for their pocket.

If Google continues to push its system as it has over the last week or two, and can convince the carriers to do likewise, Android might yet manage to establish itself as a contender in the rapidly expanding smartphone market.

Yes. Spanner's his real name. And, yes, he's heard that joke before.