Android everywhere at the 2012 International CES

At a time when mobile devices have become the predominant driver of the Consumer Electronics (CE) industry, it is noteworthy that Microsoft, now partnered with Nokia for development of the Windows Phone platform, decided that 2012 would be their last year at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Now that leadership of the smartphone industry has essentially become a two-horse race between Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating systems, Microsoft has chosen to no longer deliver the pre-show CES keynote address, as their CEO has done for the last 13 years, nor will they even participate as an exhibitor on the show floor.

Big names take a back seat

Some observers, such as San Jose Mercury News columnist Troy Wolverton, have called Microsoft’s departure a sign of the decline of CES, since Apple also does not appear at the venue and Google occupies little space as an exhibitor. While software is an increasingly important component of CE, such a view fails to see past the glitzy surface of all the technology that comes together at CES. Participants in the Android ecosystem, large and small, could be seen just about anywhere you looked, from semiconductor companies to software tool providers to device manufacturers. Success in today’s CE industry requires building such a network of companies, and in that regard Google’s influence and presence at CES is pervasive and growing, while Microsoft is struggling to remain relevant.

Reducing fragmentation...

CNET recognized this in their annual CES “Super Session” panel on the Next Big Thing in CE, focusing on “The Ecosystem” by leading off with an interview of Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt. While Schmidt acknowledged that some of the attractiveness of Android is derived from its availability as a free operating system that anyone can take and use as they wish, he also bristled at concerns over the fragmentation that such openness has engendered. Drawing a line between differentiation (as positive) and fragmentation (as negative), Schmidt denied that the latter is occurring now that Google is consolidating the core of Android in the latest Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) version of the OS. CE manufacturers are free to differentiate and offer consumers choices, he said, as long as they meet the requirements of Google’s Compatibility Test Suite (CTS).

... But not everywhere

The reality, however, is that CTS is designed primarily for handsets and the CE industry has moved far beyond that in their use of Android. While the Honeycomb tablet version of Android was not released by Google as open source, ICS has been, meaning Google is not in control of how it will be used even as they attempt to get developers to standardize on the base Android User Interface (UI) style guide.

This was immediately evident from the CES opening day keynote, where Qualcomm Chairman and CEO Dr. Paul Jacobs presented his company’s plan to embed their S4 Snapdragon processor in televisions, tablets, and notebook computers, as well as maintain their lead in smartphone applications. Dr. Jacobs introduced Liu Ju, Senior VP at Lenovo, to demonstrate the use of Snapdragon in a new Android ICS-powered smart TV to be sold in China. Lenovo is providing their own TV app store, to overcome the limitations of being non-CTS compliant, so that consumers will be able to download games and similar TV content without depending on the Android Market. The Android ecosystem for the living room is also fragmenting, or differentiating if you prefer, from the Google TV 2.0 system that the company announced just prior to CES with TV manufacturers LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio, and chipset providers Marvell and MediaTek.

The Myriad Group, a Swiss company, demonstrated their “Alien Vue” at CES, which they describe as “a complete end-to-end solution that enables TV service providers to add apps to their existing managed service offerings, in order to respond to the threat of new over-the-top content distribution channels from Apple, Google and others.” According to Olivier Bartholot, VP of Business Development at Myriad, cable companies (or Multiple System Operators – MSOs) are looking to adopt his company’s “Alien Dalvik” to enable the purchase and use of Android applications in a system that they can control, totally circumventing Google and the 30 percent cut that they take in the Android market. In an ironic twist on the openness of Android, cable companies are now planning to use ICS to compete with Google.

Critical systems are a go

Android is also seeing increased use in embedded applications for the healthcare field. At CES, Chris Buerger, Senior Director of Solutions at Wind River, demonstrated Android in a tablet computer that served as both a diagnostic device connected to sensors for monitoring a patient’s heart rate and blood pressure, and as a bedside entertainment display. Now that the U.S. Department of Defense has released the Security Enhanced (SE) version of Android, the operating system is a viable candidate for use in critical systems. To enable development of such applications, Wind River provides tools such as their Framework for Automated Software Testing (FAST), in which they have instrumented each functional block of Android in order to meet the higher approval standards mandated by hospitals.

The future of CES – and Android

My prediction is that CES will not suffer one bit from Microsoft’s exodus. In a world in which we will have more and more connected devices in our pockets, in our cars, in our homes, and everywhere we go, the upside of Android fragmentation is that it is leading to proliferation at a lower cost than would occur otherwise. It will be interesting to see which company takes up Microsoft’s spot opposite Intel on the floor of CES. Intel also showcased Android in their long-awaited smartphone announcement, a Medfield-based handset, also to be introduced in China by Lenovo, just like Qualcomm’s Android TV – same CE company, two different versions of Android ICS. That fits perfectly with Eric Schmidt’s definition of adding value through differentiation, even if it’s not what Google intended.

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