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Google Android: More than just a cheap date

The mobile OS is gaining momentum, and the reason goes far beyond the cost advantages its CFO cites for the open-source mobile platform.

For years, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM have used Linux to lower the cost of their hardware and software-based solutions, while keeping profit margins fat and healthy. Google, ever the quick learner, is now doing the same with Android.

The mobile market will never be the same.

Take a peek inside the Android. Google

Just as Google and others are using open-source software to lower barriers to adoption of their proprietary cloud offerings, so, too, is Google using open source to reduce the cost of mobile computing in order to drive uptake of its proprietary search-related advertising business in mobile.

Google CFO Patrick Pichette said as much in Google's most recent earnings call:

If we move forward the adoption of these smartphones by having a lower cost infrastructure because it's open source...all the (mobile) searches...will happen so much faster.

Open source: it's all about peace, love...and capitalism.

However, Android is more than just a way to shave a few dollars off a phone's purchase price. Jim Zemlin, Linux Foundation's executive director, declared recently that Linux offers "greater flexibility, freedom from lock-in, and lack of licensing costs."

He's right, but I'd argue that the "lock-in" argument is a bit of a throwaway line and the cost advantages are of secondary importance. The real value for would-be Android developers is its flexibility, which in turn helps to corral a community of interested participants.

Google Android's open-source license also encourages broad experimentation with the platform by a range of device manufacturers. Some handsets will be flops, but others, like Verizon's forthcoming Motorola-developed Droid, look likely to succeed.

Google can play the odds because, unlike Apple, it hasn't tied its fate to any one device. Instead, it has intentionally spread Android's risk--and chances of success--through its open-source license.

It's genius. Sheer genius.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seems determined to revive Microsoft's stale desktop monopoly, as reported by The New York Times and, in mobile, is focused on toppling Apple's iPhone "momentum." But he probably should be more worried about Android as a long-term community play.

Mobile is the future, and that future is going to be heavily influenced by open source.

Linux has succeeded in servers precisely because a wide array of Microsoft competitors have converged on it as a way to club Microsoft. The same is happening in development tools (Eclipse), browsers (Firefox), Web servers (Apache), and more.

In Android, then, Microsoft isn't simply competing with Google. It's competing with the entire industry--or will be, soon enough.

Google, for its part, should continue to spearhead Android development, but must find ways to open Android further to outside involvement. Otherwise, it stands to lose out to open-source alternatives like Symbian if they do a better job at encouraging community uptake. Google really doesn't need to control the platform to succeed.

In fact, given that its revenue derives from proprietary services delivered on top of the Android platform, its best chance for success is to do whatever is necessary to further proliferate Android.

Android is powerful with Google behind it, but it would be much more so with Nokia, Palm, and others. As in the server war, such vendors may find it advantageous to abandon their "Unix" variants to combine behind Android.

That is the power of open source, and it's how Google has made such intelligent use of Android. It's not about freedom from lock-in; it's about freedom to demolish competitors and serve customers by shifting the rules of the game.