Unless you've been pinned under a bus for the past 24 hours, you've no doubt witnessed the unfolding drama from yesterday's announcement by Google about its upcoming open mobile platform, dubbed Android. Opinions range from Android’s arrival heralding the end of the wireless world as we know it, to “Oh my God…targeted ads on a mobile phone!” This story isn’t particularly relevant to iPhone enthusiasts, but its impact will affect the handset industry as a whole. And being the smarty pants, know-it-all, Smartphone expert, tech talkin guy that I am, I couldn’t let this topic pass by without weighing in.
Let’s start off by cutting through marketing speak and deciphering what Android is and isn’t. What it is, according to Google, is a software stack and not the packaged operating system we came to expect from rumors preceding the announcement. What does that mean? In plain English it means Google’s OS is a bag of parts, unassembled and customizable for any application, like a pile of Lego building blocks. More on that later. As part of this venture, Google has lined up an impressive group of A-list industry partners to back its platform… all part of a larger open source initiative called the Open Handset Alliance. The group includes companies ranging from handset makers, software developers, and carriers alike. Each one lends a hand in developing Android’s software stack, and each has own interests and agenda…each using the other to get what it wants. Here is where Android begins falling apart like a house of cards on a wobbly table.
Speaking as someone who has covered the mobile industry for many years, I can tell you from experience that such conglomerations almost universally end in failure. The reason is simple; no one entity controls platform development guidelines or sets roadmap. With proprietary operating systems like Windows Mobile, or OSX, one company or development teams controls the entire development process and most importantly… user experience. Google is being less than transparent with Andriod’s UI experience and application framework, but if my hunch is correct (and it usually is on matters of mobile tech) Android will end up being a mélange of disparate and disjointed software environments with different interfaces running on different hardware, all with different application layers. Apps that run on one device may not run on another (think Symbian).
Usability is another problem. Software is nothing unless it offers a compelling user experience. An operating system must be aesthetically pleasing, reliable, and brain-dead simple to operate. iPhone delivers all of these qualities in world class fashion, which is largely reason for its success. Looking through the list of Open Handset Alliance partners reads like a who’s who in the FBI’s ten most wanted list. None of the companies involved, including Google, are known for building pretty and usable interfaces. Google’s web based properties are minimalist at best and ugly at worst. Google search does what it does. Google Doc’s gets the job done, but certainly is no replacement for Office 2007 in either. HTC isn’t exactly a hotbed of innovation when it comes to handset design. The company has done well in the Windows Mobile camp, but that’s not saying very much given the lackluster success Microsoft has had outside of the enterprise, where looks and brains don’t count. Motorola, couldn’t design a proper GUI to save its own…business. Needless to say I have very low expectations from the first round of Android-based devices to hit the market later next year.
Then we have Google’s disturbing revenue model behind Android’s distribution…one that is ad-based. The plan, as disclosed by Eric Schmidt, is to license Android freely (under the Apache GPL) in return for targeted ad revenues with carrier partners. This is worrisome to me for two reasons. 1) Handset displays are simply too small to allocate already taxed space to text-based ads. 2) I don’t fancy the thought of Google aggregating my data and bombarding me with targeted ads. Imagine this scenario – your car needs repaired…you call your nearest garage for an estimate…suddenly a text message pops up on your screen soliciting a car insurance ad from Geico. Not the kind of mobile experience I want on my phone.
So what good is Android anyway? For starters, it could do a world of good for mobile platform development by bringing an end to the confused noise of different languages that exist today. As it stands now the wireless industry is a virtual alphabet soup of different proprietary operating systems, some closed - some open, all sporting different APIs and different incompatible software stacks. Other mobile Linux efforts abound, but having Google’s name attached to this venture provides a unifying label to get behind. My bet is that over the next few years, proprietary platform vendors, particularly Nokia and RIM, will layer their own software on top of Google's Linux foundation. Consolidation is badly needed in this industry, and Google’s platform may offer that hope.
The big losers in this endeavor will be Access, the company that acquired PalmSource, the former software division of Palm Inc. Access has been working on a project similar to Google’s for some time, named ALP (Access Linux Platform). After yesterday’s announcement that project is as good as dead. Palm is another company to be placed on death watch, where they’ve been for some time now. Palm is locked in a desperate struggle to remain viable and get its long delayed Linux operating system out the gate. Android will ship months before Palm’s, making former handheld leader and its yet-to-be-released OS as irrelevant as Britney Spears music career. Microsoft’s executive team, too, will have reason to drink Pepto-Bismol in boardroom meetings, though I doubt Android will put them out of the mobile business anytime soon. Windows Mobile is well established with legions of backers and garners a handsome chunk in market share.
How does this play out for Apple? Android and its Open Handset Alliance will have little impact on iPhone or Apple’s handset business. iPhone, much like all products that wear the Apple logo, is a lifestyle device, not a commodity product like the PC. Mobile technology is a delicate interplay between hardware and software. If either one component is deficient or lacking in any way, the total product fails. That kind of synergy is only achieved when the software and hardware are made by the same creative team, with a cohesive strategy and vision. Google will quickly discover that merely getting the software equation right will be challenging enough. Getting device makers to build compelling hardware to wrap around its OS will be even harder.
Android could (emphasis) prove to be a turning point in mobile platform development, approaching a single but open environment for all to build upon, bringing an end to the Pan’s Labyrinth of platforms we know today. But the cynic in me feels this is just a lot of hot air. I’m anxious to see what this platform will offer, and rest assured I’ll be right there on day one standing first in line with other Smartphone aficionados waiting to get an Android phone. But given what I know from past efforts, my expectations are low.