Android phone’s Canadian launch ‘Dream and Magic’ … not shock and awe

Google’s Android operating system for smartphones comes to Canada June 2 aboard both the HTC Dream and Magic phones from Rogers Wireless and enters a hotly-contested marketplace that is pushing more people towards using the mobile Web.

The open source Android platform is seen a lower-cost alternative to the iPhone or BlackBerry, experts say.

Its integration with Google’s Web services will likely get more Canadians surfing the Web with smaller screens, and the Android Market adds another app store for developers and advertisers to consider.

Rogers is yet to reveal pricing details for the phones. But Android is created by the Google-led Open Handset Alliance, of which HTC is also a member, and its open source licence should translate into cost-savings, says Deepak Anand, account executive with Google.

“We [offer] it to manufacturers and they decide whether they want to use it, and make any changes as they see fit.” Providing a smartphone with a free OS should bring down the overall price and get it into the hands of more users, he said.

Both HTC phones should offer Rogers cost savings per handset when compared to the iPhone and BlackBerry devices they also carry, says Tony Olvet, vice-president of Canadian communications research at IDC Canada in Toronto. It’s a good deal for the carrier at a time when the economy is tough and the cost of acquisition per customer needs to come down.

“That cost for Rogers jumped up around last year when the iPhone was launched,” Olvet says. “This is a new era of trying to tap into new market segments with some less expensive handsets.”

Both phones will have a 3.2-inch touch screen with a 480×320 resolution. The phones also use accelerometers to sense when they are being tilted, similar to the iPhone’s function. The Dream and the Magic both include a 3.2 megapixel camera with autofocus and camcorder mode, plus a direct upload to YouTube feature.

The Dream sports a five-row QWERTY keyboard in addition to its touch screen. The Magic relies on a soft keyboard. Both have expandable microSD memory slots, supporting up to 16 GB.

Integration with many Google Apps will be pre-installed on the handsets. That includes Google Search, Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Calendar, Contacts, and Latitude. Rogers anticipates this will lead to more customers using the Web from a mobile device.

“The browsing experience on these devices is fantastic,” says Reade Barber, marketing director of data for Rogers Wireless. “We expect a large number of customers to utilize the mobile applications.”

Users of the iPhone and Android devices search more often than users of other devices, according to Google.

Putting a search bar on the home screen of a mobile device results in 10 times the search volumes – the Android features a Google Search bar on its home screen.

More specifically, users of HTC’s Dream phone (called G1 in the US) use Google Search 20 times more than users of Nokia’s Series 60 users, Anand says.

“Mobile is going to become the next gateway to the Internet,” he says. “We’re going to see a lot more development to allow advertisers to get into that space.”

Advertisers can take advantage of the mobile platform that is contextual to both a user’s location and immediate needs, the Google account executive says. Because of limited screen real estate, Google has been honing its mobile services to be as specific to a user as possible.

Mobile users of Google Search access a directory of sites optimized for display on the smaller screen sizes.

Google can also be made aware of a user’s location to return results relevant to the surrounding area. The location algorithm can tap into GPS data, microwave tower locations, and the location of Wi-Fi hotspots to triangulate the phone’s location.

“Look up ‘Chinese restaurant’ and it will find a restaurant near you,” Anand says. “Even if you don’t have data connectivity, and you’re sitting on a Wi-Fi network, it will still work based on your IP address.”

Browsing the Web from a smartphone is still considered an underwhelming experience by many Canadians. An IDC survey conducted in February shows that only half of smartphone users are satisfied with their device’s Web browsing capability.

Location-based search is a good step towards addressing the challenge of making the Web a better mobile experience, Olvet says.

“There’s far more browsing by iPhone users than any other handset,” he says. “So that’s going to be the standard that Android is compared too.”

The Android phones will be hard-pressed to scoop up loyal iPhone and BlackBerry customers, the analyst adds.

More likely is it will steal share away from some smaller players in the market and convert some standard cell phone users.

The phones will come complete with their own built-in application store, Android Market. Similar to Apple’s App Store and BlackBerry’s App World, it offers access to both free and paid-for application downloads. There’s more than 3,200 applications currently available.

Android Market is an open system that allows any developer to register and offer an application for download. The developers control when the app is released, to what countries, how much it will cost, and receive 70 per cent of the revenues from each sale. There’s no certification process involved.

“We want to open it up to as many developers as possible,” Anand says.

Google’s app store will be compelling if it manages to offer different applications that are not available to other smartphone users, Olvet says. “A unique application that fulfils an unmet need could make a big difference.”

Rogers hasn’t announced any pricing details around the phone or plans for it. It will announce those at the time of launch, Barber says.

“We do encourage carriers to give an option for unlimited data,” Anand says. “If it were up to us, we would want everyone to have full access to 3G and unlimited data.”

Rogers hasn’t offered up unlimited data packages in the past. The Android phones aren’t likely to change that, Olvet says.

With last summer’s iPhone 3G launch, Rogers offered a special 6 GB data package for $30 per month.

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