Google Unleashes a Diverse Army of Android Phones

The flexibility of the Google software makes these phones anything but clones of one another.

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Although a year late, the Google phone is living up to its promise. Phones based on the Web giant's Android software appear ready to challenge the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Nokia brands as a leading contender in the smartphone wars. A slew of Google phones have suddenly descended on the market, with dozens more expected to arrive late this year and early in 2010.

[Check out these technology gifts for the holidays.]

No single Android-based phone is likely to match the runaway success of the iPhone. But the wave of Google-supported phones could add up to a broad hit that sells more handsets than Apple, as Nokia and BlackBerry already do. Google's Android could be running on 18 percent of smartphones by 2012, say analysts at Gartner Group. That could put the Google phones second only to Nokia, which for years has been the dominant smartphone maker worldwide.

[All of their added smarts mean cellphones are replacing computers.]

Unlike Nokia, Apple, and BlackBerry, Google doesn't make the phones themselves (and denies rumors that it ever will). The search company instead rewrote free software to create the Android system that gives handsets the smarts of a low-end PC. The software first appeared to much fanfare and good reviews on a single handset in October 2008. Then it appeared to stall.

[The first Android phone was surprisingly polished, if no iPhone.]

In the past month or so, the system has blossomed. It's now on more than two dozen phones. And to firmly establish itself, Google's Android needs only a few more hits like the Verizon Droid. More than a million buyers are expected to snap up the Droid by year's end, less than two months after its introduction. Troubled Motorola, meanwhile, is betting heavily on Android and is said to be readying a new class of cheap smartphone running the Google software.

No doubt, the iPhone has a huge lead with more than 100,000 applications available for download. Just like with PCs, it's the apps that make smartphones useful to consumers and that will help drive sales. But Android has ample choice in 10,000 available apps, and more are coming.

It's also hard to beat free. The search giant essentially gives away the Android system, which it is using to corner the wireless world much like its free searches captured PCs. These phones make clear what Google is after, with their tight integration into Google apps such as Gmail, maps, and Google Voice.

And it's hard to beat easy. Cellphone makers like Motorola and carriers like Verizon are encouraged to change the Android software, lather on extras, or otherwise customize what the system does. That flexibility is attractive to the companies that make and sell the phones. And it can be to buyers.

Android phones that are hitting the market are remarkably different from each other, unlike the consistent—some might argue repetitive—look and feel of phones from Apple, RIM, and Nokia. To get a flavor, we took a look at three very different Android handsets that hint at what's to come:

Verizon Droid ($200 with contract). The handset has a beautiful, 3.7-inch touch screen and hardware keyboard that slides out from underneath. The Motorola-made handset itself feels heftier and sturdier than other models; with its metal components and hard, squared corners, it's more industrial and practical than pretty.

The software, too, is more straight forward. It's a fast, clean implementation of the Google-designed Android. The keyboard is better than a software keyboard, though it's disappointing with almost-flat keys that seem harder to find than on competing Android phones.

With that said, it's the only phone so far that's running the latest version, Android 2.0, with its added capabilities. The Droid, for example, can sync with multiple Gmail accounts and merge multiple E-mail accounts from a variety of providers into a single in-box. All in all, the Droid is easy enough for anyone to use out of the box.

But even its name suggests an orientation to someone who wants a fully powered companion at their fingertips. The Droid, more than other phones, bares Android's techy feel. It's more for a tinkerer than, say, the iPhone or Palm Pre. The Droid is for someone who wants to fully tap a phone's potential and who isn't beholden to style and soft edges.