Google's Android operating system could help unify a fragmented cell phone industry by becoming the first viable open mobile platform, but it won't have a direct impact on consumers' cell phone experiences right out of the gate.
Google launched Android, an open-source development platform based on mobile Linux, in November. It released the software development kit soon after. The company also formed the Open Handset Alliance, which is a collection of handset manufacturers, chipmaker, and service providers who will--Google hopes--one day form the ecosystem for the Android operating system.
With almost half the world's population using cell phones, the opportunity to reach more people on the Web via a mobile device is huge. Google has long recognized this, and the new software is one way the company hopes to address that market. However, unlike Apple, which developed its own hardware in addition to a mobile operating system, Google is providing only the operating system.
This approach makes sense for Google, whose main business objective is to develop and deliver applications that connect people to content on the Internet. The company does not develop hardware. It doesn't sell consumer electronic devices. Because Google makes money via Internet advertising, it makes sense for the company to build the mobile software that enables its applications and services.
Because Android itself is only the foundation for the hardware and application developers, much of the software's success will be determined by what others in the ecosystem choose to do with it.
Google will have to inspire cell phone manufacturers to make handsets with a look and feel that appeal to consumers. It will have to inspire application developers to come up with cool applications that consumers want to use. It will have to encourage mobile operators--which, in the U.S. at least, have tightly controlled the selection of devices allowed on their networks--to open their networks enough so mobile subscribers can use the features and functionality built into their phones.
"Consumers don't buy operating systems," said Avi Greengart, research director for mobile devices at Current Analysis. "They buy phones and gadgets. Therefore, if someone comes out with a kick-ass phone that does amazing things using the Android operating system, then it will be a success. But if not, it's just another developer toy."
These are still the early days for Android. Prototypes of the first mobile handsets using Android debuted in February at the GSMA Mobile World Congress. Commercial products are expected later this year. According to several reports, smartphone maker HTC may become the first company to manufacture an Android device. Samsung Electronics is likely to be a close second. Both companies are members of the Open Handset Alliance.
For the most part, the prototypes using the Android software don't offer functionality that is any different from that of a Microsoft Windows Mobile phone. But experts say it's not so much what Android lets cell phone users do, but rather what it doesn't require handset chip and device makers to do.
"Android provides a complete application framework, which can be put on chipsets with a lot less work," James Bruce, North American mobile manager for marketing at ARM, said during an interview at the GSM Mobile World Congress earlier this year.
Android should simplify the process of getting a new phone and new applications to market. Today, the cell phone market is extremely fragmented. Every manufacturer has its own operating system for phones. Very often even different models of handsets are developed using proprietary software. This makes it difficult for handset components makers, application developers, and the handset makers themselves to develop new products and services quickly because they have to design functionality for each software iteration. Even the most basic functions, such as Short Message Service, could require different programming from one brand of handset to another.
But the reality is that Android is neither the first nor the only open-source software that claims it can help simplify the market. The mobile Linux community has already been trying to do this for years. In fact, Android uses a version of mobile Linux as its foundation. The problem with mobile Linux thus far has been that there have been 15 or 16 different versions of the operating system.
But because Google's resources are behind it, experts think that Android may indeed have the best chance of consolidating the open-source market and making an impact in the mobile market.
"Android is simply one of many mobile Linux operating systems," said Jason Devitt, president and CEO of SkyDeck, a cell phone application start-up. "But it looks like it could be the one that will make the biggest impact, simply because it's Google."