gPhone may force Apple to open iPhone

gPhone may force Apple to open iPhone

Summary: BusinessWeek ran an article yesterday speculating that Apple will open the iPhone to native applications by releasing a software development kit (SDK) in early 2008. Meanwhile there's a persistent rumor that Google may be coming out with a reference implementation of a Linux-based open phone (nicknamed the "gPhone") and has already lined up Taiwanese manufacturer HTC to make 50K units to seed developers. It's probably not coincidence that the open iPhone story came out the same day as the HTC/gPhone story.

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BusinessWeek ran an article yesterday speculating that Apple will open the iPhone to native applications by releasing a software development kit (SDK) in early 2008:

Sources familiar with the company's plans tell BusinessWeek.com that Apple will release a software-development kit for the iPhone in early 2008, enabling programmers to create games, business-productivity tools, and countless other applications for the device. Few details are known, but sources say an announcement will come in January, which suggests it may be slated for Jan. 15, when Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs takes the stage at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

Through unsupported clever hacks it's already possible to run apps on the iPhone (among other things) but up to now Apple has been reluctant to let anything other than web based applications run there. Meanwhile there's a persistent rumor that Google may be coming out with a reference implementation of a Linux-based open phone (nicknamed the "gPhone") and has already lined up Taiwanese manufacturer HTC to make 50K units to seed developers. (Hey Google, if you're reading this, drop me a line and I'll be happy to send you my mailing address so I can get one :) ). It's probably not coincidence that the open iPhone story came out the same day as the HTC/gPhone story. It would be smart for Apple to hedge their bets in case their current strategy of no-native-apps doesn't pay off.

While the iPhone SDK and the gPhone are just rumors at this point (some would say, wishful thinking), it's clear that the days of locked down and tightly controlled mobile devices are numbered. The OpenMoko project has been blazing this trail since last November with its open Linux-based phone design. Sun's JavaFX Mobile project is another take on the idea that uses a GPL software stack on top of a low-level OS (which might be Linux).

Operating system importance fades

Despite years of promises and predictions, Linux has yet to "take over" the desktop. Phones are different though. Most users just want to do simple things with their phones, for example, to make phone calls, send instant messages, and maybe do a little web browsing or listen to songs. They also want the phones to be super cheap, if not free. You don't need Microsoft Windows CE, or Mac OSX, or even PalmOS to do that. A small Linux kernel with some extensible services built on top of it will do just fine. It doesn't hurt that a manufacturer can put Linux in their phone without paying a license fee either.

Key to success

I think application portability is going to be key for the success of the open phone. That's why the Java, .NET, Flash, and Ajax platforms are so attractive for these devices. Write once, run anywhere will encourage entepreneurs to create hundreds, if not thousands of apps for open phones if there there could be a standard API and binary distribution format for them to use. Otherwise, the temptation is to wait to see which platform will "win", which usually ends up meaning they don't do the app at all, or that only big players who can afford multiple ports will do the apps.

Three paths to the future

Given the human tendency to disagree I don't think you'll see "one" standard emerge. However these three paths look most promising for the future:

  1. "Ajax 2.0". This is DHTML, JavaScript, and asynchronous server requests coupled with some local storage for online/offline capabilities, and perhaps incremental improvements to the browser (HTML5, vector graphics, etc.).
  2. Linux x86. The venerable x86 architecture has already taken over the desktop and server markets so why not mobile? Using a common instruction set makes it that much easier for developers to port, compile, and debug their code. Currently ARM is a de-facto standard in phones but I have a feeling x86 will win out in the end.
  3. Pure Java. Combine a full Java stack under a free license with a common binary format (bytecodes) and a common API (Java SE, or Java ME Personal profile perhaps?) and you have a compelling platform. Java ME and BD-J (the Java runtime on Blu-Ray disks) have proved this is practical though not as painless as it should be. The addition of vector graphics and good multimedia support is a must.

I predict hardware manufacturers will probably go for the common denominator of all these platforms (small x86-based device with a thin Linux layer that can run native apps, apps in a browser, or a Java stack) so they won't care who wins. Users won't care either as long as they get their cheap phones. Ultimately only the developers will care, because we're the ones that have to make all this work together.

[ Update: That didn't take long.

Topics: Linux, Apple, Software Development, Software, Oracle, Operating Systems, Open Source, Mobility, iPhone, Telcos

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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9 comments
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  • not gonna happen

    its not gonna happen...apple was the first market leader in this arena, with a loyal fan base....it will come out with apps non exclusive to google...this may not be a good area for google to jum p into I think they're gonna be out quick.
    raider5985@...
    • You forget that the iPhone is exclusive to a certain carrier. The other

      carriers will not sit still. And, Google has a lot of "cool" as well. But, I imagine that Google will likely just supply reference designs rather than getting into the phone manufacturing business. Google MAY pay somebody to manufacture a phone to jump start the sector, but not likely long term. Google would prefer to supply the software components for free that will drive the use of their services.
      DonnieBoy
    • Depends on what gPhone means

      I'm taking "gPhone" to mean a Google-backed software stack with Linux at the bottom that can run any applications and be used by any phone manufacturer. I will be very surprised if it's a Google-branded hardware device that can run only exclusive Google applications.
      Ed Burnette
  • If end users don't care about the OS, they for sure will NOT care about the

    CPU. And, with Linux, ARM is just as easy as x86 for high volume manufactures. The only thing that MIGHT help x86 is if there were a significant number x86 only binaries, but that will not likely happen. Developers will be likely to write to Java, not x86.
    DonnieBoy
    • ARM vs x86

      Users don't care about the CPU model but they do care about how fast the apps run and how complex they can be. The reason x86 won on the desktop and server is that it kept getting faster and more capable due to economies of scale compared to vastly superior architectures like, say, MIPS and PA-RISC. The Intel/AMD rivalry helped push both manufacturers to new heights. I don't see why the same thing won't happen on phones as well.

      See for example http://arstechnica.com/articles/paedia/cpu/Intels-x86-ISA-grows-down-today-laptops-tomorrow-the-iPhoneBlackberry.ars and http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9584_22-6210033.html .
      Ed Burnette
      • This might be a wakeup call for ARM to work on faster and lower power

        versions before AMD and Intel become serious competition in the mobile space. But, there are lots of manufactures making ARM even though there is one company that owns the CPU design. Maybe ARM would be smart to open up the architecture to allow competition before it is to late.
        DonnieBoy
  • gPhone + 700Mhz = Google World Domination!

    Imagine Google releasing a sub $100 gPhone, that's the functional equivalent of the Treo 680. Now imagine that the phone is GPS-enabled and offers multi-band support for GSM and the soon to be released 700Mhz spectrum. Did I mention that Google had bought Palm?

    Now, image Google using their deep pockets to actually buy that 700Mhz spectrum, soon to be vacated by analog TV. A spectrum that offers instant ubiquitous access to virtually every household and business in the United States.

    Combine these two ideas and you have an instant advertising infrastructure like none that has ever existed before. Remember the gPhone has GPS capability. Now imagine you are about to make a FREE call on your gPhone... you flip it open and are greated with... "egAD" it's an advertisement for 20% a pair of Levis at the Gap store you happen to be walking past in the mall.

    The huge potential of "Just-in-Time" advertising revenues will allow Google to offer the gPhone on its own 700Mhz network as a completely free service. Want to use the phone on GSM, no problem, because Google also bought T-Mobile in the US, Roadrunner in Canada, etc. and offers an unlimited paid service with "minimal" ads for $19.95 p/mnth or a no-ad service for $49.95!
    John Westra
    • Great Idea

      Wow, now that is some great thinking right there. No doubt it will happen, though just like cable TV originally was supposed to be ad free, I doubt they will give out a no-ad service or it will evolve to ads anyway, or maybe reduced. What would also be nice is specific ads that you could choose.
      michael.brodock@...
  • RE: gPhone may force Apple to open iPhone

    Google will be the force that can make technological change. Starting first with it's own transatlantic cable attracting the remnants of the world not on the internet to lowering internet prices to the introduction of low-cost, or free, worldwide wifi phones to breaking the backs of U.S. mobile phone carriers that force consumers into their proprietary locked systems and services.

    The day is coming! Hallelujah!
    desertcities@...