If you own an iPhone, you can choose from a surging sea of add-ons that work with it: speaker docks, in-car gizmos, game controllers, and much more. If you have an Android phone–well, if you’re lucky, the company that made it sells some peripheral devices. (Motorola, invented of such add-ons as the Lapdock, is especially conscientious here.)
The scarcity of Android accessories is partially a business issue: No single Android phone has anything like the marketshare of the iPhone, making the potential audience smaller. But it’s also a technical problem. Apple’s Dock Connector is one unified port that can handle power, audio, video, and other connections. Android devices haven’t had anything similar.
At CES, however, I visited Pioneer Electronics’ booth and learned that AppRadio 2, the new version of the company’s car gadget that lets you dock your phone and use apps from it in big-screen dashboard versions, now works with Android phones as well as the iPhone. How’d Pioneer manage it? It used MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link), a newish connector found on a bunch of Android handsets, including Samsung’s Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus, HTC’s EVO 3D and Rezound, and others.
MHL connectors are essentially HDMI ports that let your phone charge as it’s outputting video. They’ve been promoted mostly as an easy way to plug a phone into a big-screen TV to watch HD video, but Pioneer’s use of MHL shows that they can be used for other applications, too.
(The AppRadio also works with phones that have plain HDMI ports, but MHL makes a lot more sense, since it’ll charge your phone whenever you’re using it with the AppRadio.)
MHL won’t let Android phones catch up with the iPhone when it comes to add-ons. For one thing, many Android phones don’t have MHL yet. For another, those that do put the connector in different places, which makes for design challenges that Apple’s always-on-the-bottom Dock Connector doesn’t present. But if MHL catches on, Android users may finally get access to more of the nifty accessory devices that iPhone owners take for granted.