What doctors need to know about Google Android and Nexus One

The momentum and enthusiasm in the mobile technology world is, these days, clearly with Google.

What doctors need to know about Google Android and Nexus One The question for many people is whether to go with the reigning champion of the mobile device world (arguably Apple) or to take a chance on the challenger. The Nexus One, the flagship of the Android family of mobile devices, was unveiled to much fanfare in advance of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The veritable King Midas of the online world had finally decided to take on its equally successful counterpart in the consumer electronics world. In the middle of this battle of the corporate titans, what’s the medical professional to do?

Previous commentary has often focused on the first few Android-based phones in comparison to the iPhone, such as our previous post addressing Verizon’s Droid vs. iPhone. But the choice is much broader – as integration of local and web-based resources improves, you’re really making a choice between a parallel suite of services. As Nick Bilton of the New York Times points out, the Nexus One is highly integrated with Google’s suite of online tools. So if you use Google Reader to keep up with The New England Journal of Medicine, have your institutional emails centralized in your Gmail account, or otherwise live in the “Google world” then the Nexus One and Android-family of phones may have some clear functionality advantages.

Another advantage that Google brings is an army of software and hardware developers via the Open Handset Alliance who support the Android operating system, which is a Linux-based open source system. As such, Google does not charge mobile device manufacturers for Android, which Saul Hansell of the New York Times suggests may be because Google’s real ambition here is to prevent anyone, whether Apple or Microsoft, from controlling the mobile OS market. Some forecasts are suggesting that Android will control a larger percentage of the market than Apple by as early as 2012, with a forecast by Gartner Inc. estimating a 14.5% to 13.7% advantage. The plus here for medical professionals could be an operating system that evolves more rapidly and stimulates a even richer suite of applications produced by third party developers. We’ve already looked at some of these possible medical apps, such as dictation services for the Nexus One.

However, this same potential strength also exposes a potential weakness, namely fragmentation of the Android market leading to incompatibility across different handsets running the “same” Android operating system. Differences in phone features, screen sizes, and other characteristics could create some pains for developers, especially as new players like Lenovo and Dell join the traditional handset manufactures and create even more diversity in the Android market. In our commentary on whether the Droid will motivate developers, one developer commented that there is a substantial opportunity cost involved with learning a new platform. While a large Android community may raise the incentive to enter this market, fragmentation would essentially mean that developers will be weighing many small markets against the large cost of learning the relevant platforms.

Another recently exposed weakness is customer support. Google has traditionally relied on online forums, FAQ sites, and other similarly low-cost support mechanisms for its online suite of applications. With the release of the Nexus One, Google has started to learn a hard lesson that Apple has done pretty well with – keeping customers happy when things go wrong. Right now, early-adopters of the Nexus One have to call Google for software problems, HTC for hardware problems, and T-Mobile for service problems. As you can imagine, there are a fair number of people who are pretty unhappy with this. And if mobile technology is going to continue to expand among medical professionals, then reliability and robust support are a must.

All in all, the Nexus One and the Android family are well positioned and widely predicted to become a big time player in the mobile market. The iPhone has clearly transformed the mobile technology market and developers like Modality have used this platform to develop innovative and valuable tools for medical professionals. But many of the advantages the iPhone boasted when it first appeared, especially the rich developer community, are now being replicated and expanded upon by the Android family. And if Google is really not looking to turn the Android Operating System into a major revenue source, then it could be an even more dangerous challenger for the iPhone.

Satish Misra is a cardiology fellow and a founding partner and managing editor, iMedicalApps.

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