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Google Android: Mobile open source has finally arrived

Just as Linux's big moment on the server came with IBM's $1 billion commitment, so too will the mobile open-source market come into its own with Android.

Open source, despite its community roots, often doesn't become mainstream until corporations get involved. There are notable exceptions--Mozilla Firefox and the Apache Web server being just two--but often it is corporate self-interest that provides the mechanism to deliver the value of community-developed open source to a mainstream audience.

While the mobile market remains highly fragmented, therefore, I take it as a very encouraging sign that Google has thrown its considerable heft behind Android, its open-source mobile operating platform.

Sure, we've had mobile open-source companies for years. I was part of one of the first: Lineo, an embedded Linux vendor that distributed an optimized Linux distribution for PDAs like the Sharp Zaurus. More recently, Funambol has proved popular as a mobile application server, specializing in synchronization technology.

But just as Linux's big moment on the server came with IBM's $1 billion commitment to fund its development and marketing, so, too, will the mobile open-source market come into its own with Google Android.

Android has recently pulled ahead of Microsoft's Windows Mobile in the smartphone market, according to data from AdMob, hitting a global 5 percent market share (in terms of access to mobile ads, not units shipped), while continuing to grow 25 percent month over month.

While Microsoft dominates on the desktop, with even its not-yet-released Windows 7 beating Linux, according to W3C data, Linux, and increasingly Google's Android flavor of Linux, is making a big push on smartphones.

To fuel this, Google has been upping its commitment to developers, most recently with an upgrade to its Android Market, but also pushing its handsets into an ever-widening array of handset manufacturers and wireless carriers, most recently Sprint.

I've suggested that the only way to beat Apple's iPhone is with a big commitment of resources. Google appears to be doing this, but in an intelligent way: it is trying to attract a wide community of developers to share the burden of beating the iPhone.

InfoWorld's Neil McAllister thinks it's not working, but I'm more sanguine. So long as Google invests marketing and development resources to Android, the open-source operating platform has a good chance.

And, importantly, so long as Google remains committed to mobile, there's a very good opportunity for other mobile open-source players to draft on its momentum. An entire open-source industry has grown up in the shadow of IBM's original $1 billion commitment to Linux.

The same can happen in mobile, and this time it will be Google's turn to lead.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.