Google got started in the smartphone business by supporting the iPhone with apps including Google Maps and YouTube. But in 2008, the company released its own smartphone operating system (OS), Android. Unlike iOS, which was solely for the iPhone (and now iPad), Google licensed Android to multiple smartphone manufacturers, each of which added its own brand-specific user interface on top of the OS. Android is an open architecture based on the Linux kernel.

Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007 brought smartphone capabilities, formerly exclusive to businesspeople with employer-provided Blackberrys, to the average Joe. The iPhone made tasks such as reading e-mails or Web browsing easier — and sexier — than was previously possible. Apps that take notes, edit pictures, start cars remotely, and edit CAD files made the iPhone the de-facto smartphone.

But today Android-based phones are rapidly catching up or even overtaking iPhones. A big advantage of Android phones: Every Google service integrates nearly flawlessly with the OS. After you purchase an Android phone, you must either sign into an existing Gmail account or create one. If you already have a Gmail account, your e-mail contacts automatically sync with your phone as call contacts. Likewise, when you change call contacts, all changes can sync with your Gmail account. Android also lets you choose to add new contacts to your phone without duplicating them in Gmail.

If you use Google Calendar, you’ll be happy to know that it too syncs with Android phones. There’s no need to duplicate entries from your phone’s calendar to the one on your computer or vice versa. Should you have multiple Google calendars, you can sync one or all of them.

Capabilities such as Google Docs (cloud-based documents, spreadsheets, and presentations), Google Books (ebooks on-the-go), Google Maps (maps and turn-by-turn navigation, including Google’s popular “street view”), Google Search, and YouTube are all available as either built-in apps or can be downloaded from the Android Market at https://market.android.com, Google’s answer to Apple’s AppStore.

Android Market programs fall under three main areas: games, apps, and smartphone service-provider suggestions. Clicking Apps brings up such subcategories as business, finance, and medical. A search function lets you find apps based on their name, description, or publisher. Type a general keyword such as “CAD,” and the screen shows everything from video tutorials to CAD editing and drawing software.

Engineering apps in the Android Market include a calculator for three-phase induction motors and a program for determining the force distribution in continuous beams. In fact, more engineering companies are choosing the Android OS when building their own apps because of the OS’s open architecture.

Android hardware is increasingly the choice of average Joes, too, because it’s fast. New smartphones incorporate 1 GHz or dual-core processors, which better support multitasking. Androids are also more compatible with PCs. For example, connecting a phone to a computer via USB provides an instant external hard drive. Lastly, users can customize the phones by choosing Web browsers, media players, and wallpapers.

Android phones are sold at AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon stores.

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.