Google's non-paranoid Android

For an announcement with no hardware, no software and no business model, Google's Android makes a great deal of sense

If you were disappointed by Android, the subject of Google's mobile-strategy announcement, then you were hoping for the wrong thing. Many were, but expectations of an iPhone-killer were never plausible. Google's feelings towards Apple, iPhone or no, are warmly neutral.

Android and the attendant Open Handset Alliance (OHA) are aimed squarely at Redmond. With smartphone technology at a comparable stage to the PC market 15 years ago (roughly the time the internet arrived), there's still no monopoly operating system. Instead, there's a three-way split between Linux, Symbian and Microsoft, with Microsoft currently bringing up the rear.

Google will be happy if Android keeps things that way. It will be happy already that it has recruited handset maker HTC, Microsoft's most prominent hardware partner. Expect loud protestations from HTC that this doesn't mean anything, that its love for Windows Mobile is unchanged. Expect nobody to believe it.

Google's immediate task isn't to recruit more networks or equipment manufacturers; it's to demonstrate that Android can generate good results quickly. Producing the software development kit (SDK) before the hardware is a fine start (pay attention, Apple). So is setting a sensible year-long window before anyone has to worry about products. If Google is smart — and there is some evidence to that effect — it will do everything in its power to create and foster a lively developer community. That's one area in which Microsoft excels, and the OHA would do well to take notes. It takes more than just an SDK.

After that, it'll be a battle of cultures. Google's business model, mobile and wired, is based on the simple premise that, given the choice, users will prefer its offerings. Anything that restricts that choice — that locks users into a network, a handset, OS or application — is the enemy. The mobile world is still gripped by a terrible fear that, given the choice, users will prefer to move. Anything that encourages that choice is the enemy.

Google is fighting its corner in the same way it fought the search and online application battles. It's giving everything away. Although we won't know for a year whether that generosity will buy a market, the mobile world is due a revolution. Google has the right ideas and the right people, at the right time, to lead that revolution. That's worth far more than an iPhone.


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