What is it?

Android isn't an acronym of any sorts, it's the name for an open source operating system for mobile phones that is set to be the next big step in the evolution of the mobile phone platform. It was initially taken on board by Google and developed to the first launch, seen running on T-Mobile's G1 handset. It will be forever synonymous with Google, for just that alone, as they were chiefly responsible for its existence in the mainstream today.

The OS is built on Linux and the kernel version 2.6, with the majority of applications being developed based on the Java programming language with Google's own freely available software libraries for the phone, which are well known for their versatility and ease of use.

As it hails from Google, all of the services they have are built into Android creating a solid, reliable and durable mobile experience that offers up the best of the Internet whilst harnessing the underlying hardware at the very same time.

Android is known to be a very lightweight operating system, meaning its install code is very small creating a much more robust platform that can be installed and run very well on even budget entry level phones.

Everything that can be used and seen in various other phones, from Wi-Fi, GPS and the accelerometer can be harnessed and used by the Google OS to create a well-rounded handset. Nothing is left out - if anything it's much easier for third-party developers to use these features for writing applications.

One of the less written about features of Android, that excites and drives developers, is how their software is run on the OS. Due to the nature and design of the platform, third-party software is executed and run with the same priority as even the core operating system. This prevents any lags in performance or bad user experience for almost any applications written and creates a fair, unbiased platform for mobile phones. Other operating systems for handsets do not function in the same way.

What are the variations of the technology?

There really is just one, Android. It's said to be so versatile, it can be used on a wide array of mobile phones from clamshell to candybar, smartphones, low cost, high cost and anything else in between.

Why should I care?

Android is an open source platform where others are closed. It's free from being tied to any deployment costs, with a whole host of companies investing in its further development rather than just the one. There's no cost attached in the licensing of the OS for a phone, meaning production costs can be kept low which in turn means a lower cost handset. There's also the benefit of a much richer hardware feature set that could be included in the phone, where in the past and with other operating systems sacrifices might have to be made to keep the costs low.

The applications pre-installed are also very rich in nature, with the likes of the reliable Google search being interwoven into the OS. Other Google services such as their Gmail, Calendar, Google talk and their Mapping software are all built in by default, with the latter offering satellite, traffic and soon to be seen location based services.

There's also the support of multiple applications and widgets, from third-party developers on the Android Market. This is rather akin to the Apple iTunes store and is set to replicate its great success, once the wide adoption of the platform has become greater with handset manufacturers.

The software development kit for application writers is freely available, where everything needed to start writing from day one is free. This will undoubtedly fuel the uptake of the OS, as compared to software writing on other platforms around for mobiles.

What's a good example in practice?

There really is only one handset on the market today running Android and that is T-Mobile's G1 that launched late October 2008.

The phone was made exclusively for that network by HTC, which was the very first Android phone for them too. This now establishes a precedent for the company for the future, where they could very well be the first handset manufacture to have a phone under their own name for other networks, such as Orange or Vodafone, to adopt.

T-Mobile's G1 comes under the heading of a smartphone, as it has the characteristics of a handset of that nature with the likes of a full slide out QWERTY keyboard. With all of Google's features tied so closely to the operating system, it also picked up the mantel of being called the first true internet mobile phone.

As for web surfing the G1 uses its default WebKit based browser, with similar code to the ones used by Apple's Safari and Google's own Chrome.

In December last year, Google announced the Android "Dev Phone 1", a SIM-free version of the G1 that wasn't locked to T-Mobile, with a view for developers to be able to use this device to create their own applications for the OS, based around this phone as a template and free from the restrictions that a network might apply.

Is there a competing technology that I should be aware of?

There are a few other operating systems for mobile phones. One of the more well known ones is Windows Mobile, which has been around for nearly 9 years and in over seven editions over that time frame. It's been noted there is a $14 license cost attached for handset manufactures to use Windows Mobile, where Android doesn't have one at all as it falls under the Open Source category of operating systems much like Linux.

One of the other alternatives is Symbian, a favourite of Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia and more recently purchased on whole by the last company. This mobile platform can have its linage traced as far back as the early 90s, from the Psion mobile computing products. More recently, Symbian has started to make progress to being Open Source with a cost also noted as having a zero price tag attached to it.

There are some handset or chipset specific mobile operating systems, from the likes of Qualcomm with their Brew OS, Research In Motion's BlackBerry and Palm's devices. The latter of which has just developed a new version to be first seen on an upcoming handset called the Pre.

Qualcomm's Brew can be seen on a number of handsets, as many phones have the chipset by Qualcomm and the OS works seamlessly together with them hand in hand. One of the more recent mobiles seen supporting this platform is the INQ1 handset, by the network's "3" parent company.

What is in store for the future?

As we're writing this guide one of the largest events on the mobile phone calendar is just a matter of weeks away. Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which every February shapes the handset launches for the rest of the year, as the majority of the upcoming handsets are announced there.

An organisation known as the Open Handset Alliance was formed sometime back, to create the base for further development of Android. Ensuring it's not only with one single company, but with a number of companies which will guarantee its success by offering a solid foundation for the future.

14 of the largest operators in the field of mobile phones are now a part of this organisation, just stamping their mark and progressiveness towards its future of this industry, whilst at the very same time showing their hand in a way, as they too will be working on Android based mobiles.

Some of these companies that will be instantly recognisable are; HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung Electronics, ASUSTek, Sony Ericsson and Toshiba.

We're expecting in a few weeks time announcements by several of those key companies unveiling Android-based mobile phones, or at the very least showing prototypes with the OS running on them.

It goes without saying that more and more companies developing mobile phones with the Google OS platform will drive its adoption. In turn, more and more software developers seeing more and more Android phones will in turn write more and more applications for those handsets. This goes to create more handsets, and so on and so on.