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Google's Android Market Enables Web Sales

With a preview of the forthcoming tablet-tuned version of Android and a redesigned Android Market, Google has addressed some longstanding gaps in its mobile arsenal.

Google is finally getting its Android act together. Having long played Avis -- we're number two, we try harder -- to Apple's Hertz in the mobile arena, Google last week released a developer preview of the Android 3.0 SDK (Honeycomb) for tablet computers and on Wednesday announced significant changes for its Android Market.

At a media event at the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, Google engineering VP Andy Rubin, Hugo Barra, director of product management for mobile, and engineering director Chris Yerga presented an overview of Honeycomb and revealed a revamped version of the Android Market that addresses several developer complaints.

First and foremost, the Android Market now functions on the Web. Previously, the only way to acquire apps from the Android Market was to use the built-in client software on an Android device. And this isn't simply a second, separate sales channel; it's integrated such that buying an app from the Android Market through the Web sends the purchased app to one's Android device.

"There's no wires, no syncing with computers, none of that sort of non-sense," said Yerga, presumably alluding to the cumbersome iPhone sync-by-wire process.

The company also introduced an Android Market feature called Buyer's Currency, which provides developers and app publishers with more control over pricing. It allows app prices to be set differently in different markets and to be displayed in local currency. This capability will be rolled out over the next four months.

Finally, Android is getting In-App Buying, known to iOS developers as In-App Purchasing (IAP). This allows developers to sell real or virtual goods and services from within their apps. Selling items through apps generally leads to better app distribution because apps can be given away for free and still generate sales later.

Google's broad vision of an open ecosystem of devices backed by the company's cloud services has always been appealing. The future Rubin described was one of seamless integration between phones, tablets, and platforms like Google TV.

"It's the cloud that makes the experience seamless," he said.

But the reality has fallen short of the dream, at least in terms of commerce. Android apps haven't been selling as well as iOS apps, thanks in part to Apple's more tightly integrated iTunes App Store experience. And developers, while they remain interested in creating Android versions of their apps, have looked at Android as where one goes after the iOS version has been released.

It hasn't helped that Apple has had the touch tablet market more or less to itself for almost a year.

Carlos Icaza, co-founder of Ansca Mobile, which makes a developer framework called Corona SDK for creating iOS and Android apps from the same code base, says that based on data from the company's build system -- used to compile apps -- the ratio of iOS apps to Android apps is 8 to 1.

Developers, in other words, are still more focused on iOS than Android. Though this may to some extent reflect the maturity of the iOS APIs in the framework, it nonetheless shows that among developers with an expressed interest in both platforms, there's a clear preference.

The tipping point, however, is at hand. iOS, Android, and BlackBerry are pretty much tied these days. It's anyone's game to win. But Google's convincing tablet offering reveals real momentum.

Tablets running Honeycomb are competitive with Apple's iPad, and Honeycomb includes some features, like application fragments -- which accelerate development by encapsulating common functions into reusable modules -- that aren't available for iOS development.

"I think Android is moving in the right direction," said Icaza. "They are clearly showing they can move really fast. If Google gets it right, I think that Android is the 'other' platform after iOS, one that every other mobile OS will have to catch."

Perhaps more significantly, Google's strength in the cloud has greater potential for broad service integration than Apple's desktop choke-hold.

Apple is building up its data center capacity, but it has yet to show that its device-centric model will be as flexible as Google's device-independent model. MobileMe, to be sure, is no Google Apps.

Expect the battle to become even more heated as Google, Apple, and the rest roll out near-field communication systems for mobile payments.

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