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Google's Android Is Here -- iPhone Better Watch Its Back

BARCELONA -- It really does exist.

I've just come from a demonstration of the Android software platform for portable devices here at the 2008 Mobile World Congress.

Android is an open-source operating system that is reportedly the heart-and-soul of the upcoming Google (GOOG) phone, among others. Open source means anyone can develop software for and freely use the platform.

I saw Android in action on a very basic GSM/GPRS handset that has a very simple 200MHz ARM processor. It was able to make and receive calls, email and SMS messages, and browse the Web, play audio and video files, handle YouTube files and even help you with directions.

Of course, since Google is the major force behind the Open Handset Alliance, which is the major force behind the software. So, it's no surprise that Android the Web browser opens to the Google search page, Gmail is Android's email client and Google Maps is what you use to find where you're going with Android.

What I've learned today is that Android will take many forms. Depending on the sophistication of the hardware involved (what the processor chip can handle or whether it has a touch screen or high-speed data connection), this new mobile OS platform will spawn many different styles and types of mobile devices.

A number of chip manufacturers here at the show, such as Texas Instruments (TXN), Qualcomm (QCOM), Marvel (MRVL), NEC (NIPNY) and ST Micro (STM) are quietly demonstrating what a super-duper Android device might, could and will look like in the near future.

Actually, if you're dying to see what Android looks like for yourself you can download and install the online software development kit here.

There are available versions that should run on your Windows, Mac or Linux computer.

From what I saw at today's short demonstration, it's very possible that Android phones could give Apple's (AAPL) iPhone a run for its money. I was amazed at how well -- and how quickly -- Android worked on a phone with a simple processor.

I can just imagine what it will be able to do on handsets with even more capable, faster, better and smarter processors.

As for when we'll see the first commercially available Android device, best-guess estimates are "sometime in the second half of this year." What that means in simple English is "in time for the year-end holiday buying season."

We'll let you know when we know more details.

With 34 years experience as a journalist -- the last 27 with NBC -- Gary Krakow has seen all the best and worst technology that's come along. Gary joined MSNBC.com before it actually went online in July 1996. He produced and anchored the first live Webcast of a presidential election in November 1996. With a background as a gadget freak, audiophile and ham radio operator, Krakow started writing reviews for both Audio and Stereophile Magazines in the 80s. Once at MSNBC.com, Krakow started writing a column to help feed his personal passion for playing with gadgets of all types, shapes and sizes. Within a short time, that column became a major force in many electronics industries -- audio, video, photography, GPS and cell phones. Readership soared, and manufacturers told him they had actual proof that a positive review in his column sold thousands of their products. Many electronics manufacturers have used quotes from his reviews in their sales literature as well as on their Web sites. There have also been a few awards too, including Emmys in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

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