Dan Frommer's post this morning over at Silicon Alley Insider suggests that one of the missing pieces from the competitive pie, as far as Google and Palm's mobile OS offerings are concerned, is a 3G-free & contractless device. Something, perhaps, like the iPod touch. Absent a way for consumers and developers to buy into the platform without the burden of a monthly cellphone contract, he argues, the two players are unlikely to build the critical mass of apps and app purchasers that would grant vitality and staying power in the face of the Apple/App Store ecosystem.
It's easy to see that the touch provides a great boost to the App Store juggernaut; about one-third of the 50 million-plus iPhone OS devices are estimated to be iPod touch units, and all those owners are potential app and music customers. Certainly there's an audience for Android (if not WebOS, which is more telephony-centric to my mind) on a disconnected gadget?
Unfortunately, Frommer's analysis is missing two key pieces of market data. Number one, as was adroitly pointed out by Joachim on Sunday's talkcast, there already is a contract-free developer handheld for Android, available for $399 from the Android Market... exactly what he proposes in the last paragraph of his story. There's also the new Archos 5 Internet Tablet, a consumer-grade, contract-free and phoneless Android tablet, ready for the eager Android personal media player buyers to snap up. (The equivalent contract-free Pre is a stark $899, and there is no 3G-less WebOS device that I can find.) Update: A commenter notes the Creative Zii Egg, another impending Android PMP that looks astonishingly like an Apple product.
That's where we come to the second market truth that Frommer missed, and it's a harsh one: Nobody knows, and nobody cares. Even a guy writing about this precise topic had no idea -- and apparently couldn't quickly discover from a casual search -- that these devices were already out in the field, despite frequent coverage of the Archos device on Engadget and elsewhere over the past few months. If there's any starker evidence that the market for non-phone Android and WebOS devices simply doesn't exist yet, I can't imagine what it would be.
Part of the reason for the iPod touch's success is that it clearly combined two already-successful products: the iPhone and the iPod. The 'elevator pitch' for the device ("It's an iPhone but with Wi-Fi instead of the phone") is simple and straightforward. Unfortunately for Android, there really isn't a dynamic personal media player market anymore that supports a phoneless entrant... it got eaten by the iPod.
I do think it would be healthy for the iPhone and for the portable OS market in general if developers and customers had more contract-free options on the other platforms. Still, the retroactive wish-fulfillment of Frommer's post doesn't bode well. "Oh, they already have that? Gosh."