Superpower Google announced a new mobile platform this month in the very latest attempt to create a ‘free’ software environment for mobile phones based on the operating system Linux. The platform is called Android and Google’s aim is to reach a point where operating system software doesn’t come from a single vendor – like Symbian – and isn’t under the control of a single company – like Java is with Sun.
To emphasise this independence, Google has garnered widespread support in the shape of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). It’s a clear attempt to bring the big internet names to the mobile phone sector, but it’s not obvious who exactly will benefit – besides Google itself.
Google is widely regarded as a key player in providing what have been termed ‘Web 2.0’ services, alongside other big names in social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. The search engine is hoping that this success can be mirrored in innovative mobile phone applications. It’s even offered $10m in prizes for the best application built on Android.
Android is the name given not only to the software, but also the company that wrote it – which Google acquired back in 2005. It will form the basis of a common platform that has the backing of the OHA. The member list of the OHA is quite impressive since it includes seven major operators, including T-Mobile and Telefónica, alongside Samsung and Motorola. Nokia UK MD Simon Ainslie has also indicated that his company might participate in the venture, too. ‘We are always open to discussion and debate on that. We were not ready to make any commitment to it or discuss it at the time [of the Android announcement],’ Ainslie said.
The concept behind Android isn’t new. Its objective is to enable developers to create a single piece of software that can potentially run on all makes and models of mobile phones. This is exactly what was promised by Java with its motto ‘write once, run anywhere’. To a certain degree, Java has been a success, particularly for mobile game producers. The snag is that handset manufacturers have produced their own ‘flavours’ of Java, so there’s no guarantee a Java application will run on every Java-enabled mobile. Google hopes Android will stop this from happening.
One company that doesn’t seem particularly fazed by Android is Symbian. John Forsyth, VP of strategy at Symbian, said: ‘Making a mobile OS is a specialised form of rocket science. It’s not search rocket science.’ A Symbian spokesperson also pointed out that it ‘has lived through many announcements around new platforms and new alliances’.
The company claims the primary impact of Google’s announcement will not be on Symbian or even Microsoft, but more on the various other mobile Linux bodies that already exist. There are two organisations already working to put Linux onto mobile phones. One is the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum and the other is the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA).
Software developer Oren Glanz of Olista claims that one reason why Web 2.0 has been a success is precisely because it is dominated by one supplier. ‘We have Microsoft as the dictator,’ Glanz argued. ‘You know what standards exist because it has 95% of the market. The fragmented nature of the mobile market is what makes it so complicated and expensive to develop software. In my estimation, that’s why we’ve lost the chance to create good mobile applications in the past.’
Despite Google’s Android announcement, speculation that the company will produce its own handset, the GPhone, hasn’t died away. This is despite the fact that Google’s director of mobile platforms – and the man behind Android – denied it completely in his Android blog. The company claims that two prototype phones shown in an Android video were produced by its handset partners. Many observers believe, however, that the only way to make Android work is for Google to make an Android phone itself.