Android’s Designs on the European Mass Market

The buzz surrounding Android is inescapable at the moment. The progress the platform’s made in less than two years is remarkable. With shipments now averaging over 100,000 units a day, it’s entirely conceivable that Android sales will top 35 million globally in 2010. And that’s just handsets. It doesn’t include an abundance of new devices such as five-inch-plus tablets, netbooks and set-top boxes.

That said, two questions I hear a lot are, “Why isn’t Android doing as well in Europe as the US?” and “When’s that going to change?” The fact is that if you compare Europe with the US, Android isn’t seeing anything like the same volume of sales. There are a few reasons for this, not least that the two regions are fundamentally different when it comes to smartphone ownership. Flagship Android devices in the US have also seen enormous marketing investment by manufacturers and carriers. Motorola’s Droid and HTC’s Droid Incredible on Verizon have seen great success going up against the iPhone, but that’s required massive promotional expenditure.

Ironically, Android has directly benefited from the iPhone in the US. Apple’s exclusive deal with AT&T means Verizon and other carriers have had to bet big on alternatives to avoid a subscriber exodus. In Europe the situation’s very different. Apple’s iconic device has been widely available for some time, so operators have less need to find alternatives. Nokia and Symbian may not even scratch the surface of the US market, but they’re a far bigger force in Europe, which means Android has a bigger challenge in overcoming them. Add to that the growing strength of RIM in Europe and the reality is that while smartphone penetration in Europe is lower than in the US, competition is arguably more intensive.

It seems to me that the situation in Europe is set to change, though. Android devices to date have been homogeneous, largely following the sub-four-inch touch-screen recipe. Android now spans a huge range of prices and is increasingly moving into the prepaid market with devices such as the Huawei-made Pulse and Pulse Mini for T-Mobile and the forthcoming Vodafone 845. But there’s been a distinct lack of devices offering something different, capable of catering to the classic feature-phone user and in the process really broadening Android’s appeal.

To my mind, three devices could change that and help take Android into a new and vastly larger segment of the market in Europe. Sony Ericsson is just starting to ship its big bets for 2010 in the X10 mini and X10 mini pro. Launched at Mobile World Congress in February, they seemed to polarise opinion by taking Android to a design far closer to a classic feature phone with a small 2.55-inch display. But that to me is the point. These products are designed to speak to the classic mid-tier Walkman customer of three years ago, not the small body of smartphone and gadget obsessives.

Motorola’s Flipout is trying to do the same thing. It’s a highly innovative and compact device with a 2.8-inch touch screen that swivels 180 degrees to reveal an extremely usable qwerty keyboard. It’s in stark contrast to any existing Android products and that’s undoubtedly its strength.

I’m not suggesting these products will do mammoth volumes in Europe, but channel response has been extremely positive and their positioning means they’re not competing with the segment of the market that’s becoming so hopelessly overcrowded. I firmly believe the industry needs to overcome preconceptions of what a “smartphone” is and who it’s for. A platform is just that — a platform. It’s the basis for innovation in products, applications and services and that can and will come in many different shapes and sizes.