FAQ: Google’s Android phone platform

A closer look at what Google’s Android means for the industry and future of mobile devices.

Now that Google and its partners in the Open Handset Alliance have unveiled their open source Android platform for mobile devices, many may be wondering just how this will change the mobile phone industry. In this FAQ, we examine Android’s potential to deliver high-quality mobile Internet, as well as its potential to open up other mobile carriers’ operating platforms.

Now that Google and its partners in the Open Handset Alliance have unveiled their open source Android platform for mobile devices, many may be wondering just how this will change the mobile phone industry. In this FAQ, we examine Android’s potential to deliver high-quality mobile Internet, as well as to open up other mobile carriers’ operating platforms.

I thought Google was supposed to unveil the “GPhone” today. What happened with that?

At the moment, Google is not releasing any mobile devices on its own. Rather, it has collaborated with several technology and wireless companies to develop Android, an open source platform that can be used by any third-party developers to create applications for mobile devices. Although Andy Rubin, Google’s director of mobile platforms, won’t comment on the company’s future plans to create a mobile phone of its own, he does note that “if you were to build a GPhone, you’d build it out of this [Android] platform.”

So what is the Android platform?

Android is a Linux-based open platform for mobile devices that includes an operating system, middleware and some key mobile applications. The idea behind the platform, says Google, is to spur innovation in developing mobile applications that will give users the same experience surfing the Web on their phone as they currently have on their desktop computers.

Who is helping Google out with this project?

Thirty-three companies have banded together with Google to form a consortium known as the Open Handset Alliance [OHA], whose stated goal is to “foster innovation on mobile devices and give consumers a far better user experience than much of what is available on today’s mobile platforms.” The OHA features several major industry players, including Qualcomm, HTC, eBay, Samsung, Motorola, Intel, China Mobile, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel.

When will the Android platform become available for adoption, and when can we expect to see some Android-powered devices?

Android will become available for developers and manufacturers starting next week, on Nov. 12, and there are several companies lined up to make devices and applications for the platform. HTC CEO Peter Chou, for instance, says his company  plans to release its first Android-powered mobile phone in the second half of 2008, with “more devices to come.” Additionally, Deutsche Telekom CEO René Olbermann says T-Mobile plans to use Android to “launch robust wireless Internet and Web 2.0 services for T-Mobile customers in the U.S. and Europe in 2008.” Meanwhile, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs says his company is developing chipsets for the platform that integrate such tools and applications as mobile television, Wi-Fi and GPS.

What implications does this have for the wireless device market?

Because Android is an open source platform, it will allow users to connect to any network they choose, and will also let them add whatever applications they want. Van Baker, a research vice president at Gartner, says if the platform is successful and becomes widely adopted, it could pressure the major carriers to loosen their grip on their wireless devices. Thus, he says, companies such as Verizon might think twice before they disable Bluetooth on their handsets if they know their customers can easily switch to another carrier that will allow them to do as they please.

Dylan Schiemann, the CEO of Web-applications developer SitePath, also thinks that Android could go a long way toward prodding the carriers to open their devices to more third-party applications.

“The mobile carriers always want to control everything, but they’re showing signs of backing off on that,” he says. “Carriers have enjoyed a long period where they’ve controlled what you put on a phone, and where they’ve charged you for what you put on your phone. If the Android platform works, it could change that dynamic.”

While AT&T has yet to publicly comment on the Android announcement, Verizon has given it a warm reception. Jeffery Nelson, Verizon’s executive director of corporate communications, says Verizon “welcomes the support of Google, handset makers and others for our goal of providing more open development of applications on mobile handsets” and that “the highly-competitive wireless industry is demonstrating that neither legislation nor regulation is required to produce innovation.”

How does Google benefit from this platform?

Since Google makes most of its money from its AdSense ad distribution network, it has an interest in giving mobile phone users broad access to the Web. If more people have access to Google on both their desktops and mobile devices, then advertisers will pay them more for their ad space.

Does this mean that Android-enabled mobile devices will be inundated with ads?

According to Google, no. Ads on mobile devices will appear just as they do on standard desktop Web browsers, the company says.

Will handset manufacturers who have joined the Open Handset Alliance now only develop devices based on the Android platform?

No. Handset manufacturers remain free to install other operating systems on their phones. Both HTC CEO Chou and Motorola CEO Ed Zander say their companies still plan to make devices that employ a wide array of operating systems.

Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have often been opposed to using open source platforms on their mobile devices that let consumers use any software or application they choose. Why have Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile taken a different attitude and joined this alliance?

According to Baker, it’s all about relative market share. Because AT&T and Verizon are America’s two largest carriers, they strongly benefit from having closed platforms that give them control of what their users can and cannot use. As relatively smaller carriers, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile could use the publicity they get from supporting the Android platform to pick off customers from the two bigger carriers, Baker says. Of course, one risk of supporting the open source platform is that users of Android-enabled phones won’t have to connect through T-Mobile or Sprint Nextel, and could easily choose to go with their competitors if they found their service preferable.

Morgan Gillis, executive director of the LiMO Foundation, a group of mobile phone manufacturers that promote the creation of a Linux-based open mobile communication device software platform, says in addition to gaining publicity from working with the Open Handset Alliance, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel might simply see the adoption of open source platforms as inevitable.

“I imagine they’re looking at a future in which the walled gardens have been dissolved,” he says. “They’re embracing a reality that’s coming up fast now, and it’s better to embrace the future rather than deny that it’s happening.”

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