Given the hype around anything with a single-letter prefix — m-commerce, e-learning, iPhone — last year's speculation over a Google "gPhone" sent the blogosphere into overdrive. The Android mobile phone platform that Google actually launched, however, took things in quite a different direction.
Far from trying to take on the world by itself — something that Google, with its numerous online properties and strong brand name could certainly have attempted — Android has been positioned as a catalyst for innovation around open design.
Its open philosophy puts it diametrically opposed to proprietary platforms such as Windows Mobile, Symbian OS — the market leader thanks to its ubiquity on Nokia phones &mdash, RIM's Blackberry OS and, more recently, Apple's iPhone. All can be built upon by developers, but their inner workings remain well-protected secrets.
Google hopes to buck the proprietary trend by offering an open mobile platform, built on Android and supported by a coalition of vendors unified under the banner of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). The search giant believes the OHA will lead to more user-friendly devices designed for specific applications, instead of devices carrying the burden of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink platforms.
Unless the whole package, including looks, functionality and of course stability are there, then there is little chance for Android to succeed.
Mark Novosel, telecommunications analyst, IDC.
"By creating a complete mobile platform that is open and closely integrated with the internet, everyone in the mobile ecosystem will benefit," a Google spokesperson said. "OEMs and carriers will be free to customise the platform to bring innovative new handsets to market faster and at a much lower cost. And with a broader baseline set of functionality, developers will be free to focus their efforts on innovative and differentiating features."
That's the official line — but will it fly in the real world?
In dog-eat-dog mobile world, where partnerships are hard won and fiercely defended, Google must negotiate a much more complex minefield of vested interests and technological legacy: witness AT&T's hard-fought iPhone exclusive, for example, or Sony Ericsson's seven-year wait to step outside its commitment to its own proprietary software and the Symbian OS with the Windows Mobile Xperia X1 smartphone.
Facing these dynamics, Google is looking to mobile market outsiders for support. Its 34 OHA members include handset makers HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung as well as nine semiconductor developers, seven mobile operators, and 10 software and application providers.
OHA isn't the only open mobile platform in development, however: Android faces stiff competition from the LiMo (Linux Mobile) Foundation, a consortium founded in early 2007 whose members include Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic, Samsung and Vodafone.
Although it has fewer members, Ovum principal analyst Adam Leach believes the LiMo Foundation could be Android's worst enemy, particularly with the endorsement of the high-profile Mozilla Foundation, creators of open source stalwarts like Firefox and the Thunderbird email client.
"The LiMo Foundation's heritage is firmly entrenched within the mobile industry," he said shortly after the recent Mobile World Congress, where LiMo Foundation members announced 15 different LiMo-enabled handsets. "The expertise provided by these companies is essential to provide LiMo with the open source credentials it needs to be taken seriously by the open source community."
If you build it, will they come?
Whether or not the open source community takes either effort seriously will be irrelevant, however, if proponents of LiMo or Android fail to successfully win the hearts of consumers weighing the phones against flashy devices from better-known brands.
Simplicity is one major issue influencing smartphone purchase, a fact demonstrated by...
...Opinion Research Corporation's recent survey that found 21 per cent of all smartphones — excluding the BlackBerry and iPhone — purchased during the last holiday season were returned for being too difficult to set up or install.
The only guarantee we have in this industry is that the mobile landscape will take on many varying forms in the coming decades.
Sue Klose, corporate development director, News Digital Media.
These findings are a warning for Android and LiMo: innovative and differentiating features may be net plaudits, but phone makers need also to face the reality of consumer behaviour and avoid straying too far from buyers' comfort zone.
Usability ties in with functionality in consumer decision-making, according to Mark Novosel, market analyst for telecommunications with research firm IDC Australia.
"Style is next to functionality in terms of importance when consumers are choosing a mobile device," he explains. "Unless the whole package, including looks, functionality and of course stability are there, then there is little chance for Android to succeed."
With more than one billion mobiles sold worldwide last year alone, the prize accompanying such success is staggering — and the OHA, LiMo and other platform developers are pulling out all the stops to be part of it.
Reflecting just how high the stakes are, in March venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers offered a US$100m fund to give developers an incentive to build their apps for the iPhone. In May, RIM one-upped Apple with a US$150m fund to encourage developers to focus on its devices, particularly the new BlackBerry Bold.
With those kinds of incentives on offer, Google will have to offer developers a significant advantage to encourage them onto Android. Could Web 2.0, with the de facto development platforms of MySpace and Facebook, be the answer?
Web 2.0 development has proved attractive for business search service TrueLocal, a News Limited property that recently began developing for its online half-brother MySpace. Could TrueLocal be coaxed to support Android or a similar platform? Perhaps, says Sue Klose, corporate development director at News Digital Media.
"We see value in developing mobile sites that work on open platforms as well as more specific development initiatives that are specific to a device," she said. "Our goal as a content provider is to enable the consumer to access our sites when and how they choose. The only guarantee we have in this industry is that the mobile landscape will take on many varying forms in the coming decades, and as a proactive mobile content provider we need to be ready to act when those changes occur."
When is open, too open?
In the long term, unchecked proliferation of the "open" philosophy could well backfire if some OHA members try to localise their innovation — leading to Balkanisation along the lines of Linux, which now has 150 different distributions. Broad compatibility has been achieved in the Linux world by maintaining a common Linux kernel, but Google will have to work hard to ensure the same thing happens with Android.
Perhaps the most beneficial move for Google could be the growing availability of open-access wireless spectrum capable of covering long distances. This 700MHz spectrum, recently sold off in the US with an open access condition, would provide smaller device makers and start-up carriers with enough room to offer differentiated devices to niche markets.
For example, bookshops like Borders or Kinokuniya could offer customers an Android-based phone optimised for reading electronic, interactive books delivered over open-access spectrum. Content streaming vendors could offer their own wireless devices to customers as part of an end-to-end service package, bypassing royalty-hungry mainstream carriers.
Support, however, is an issue: Google's goal of enabling the bringing of "new handsets to market faster and at a much lower cost", as the spokesperson put it, may sound great — but it's a potential nightmare for operators. The cost of supporting a range of mobile platforms makes all vendors and carriers eager to limit the potential variability between the devices they offer.
At this stage, it would be safe to assume that Android uptake will be quite slow.
Mark Novosel, telecommunications analyst, IDC
Android's success will ultimately be measured by Google's ability to woo a market that is currently flooded with choice. In the ever-fickle mobile market where overnight obsolescence is a fact of life, Android's innovation must also be matched by big numbers to ensure the necessary profitability. It wasn't too long ago, for example, that Motorola's Razr was burning up the sales charts, but the industry has moved on and Motorola is still looking for an equally popular successor.
IDC's Novosel believes these the cold, hard reality of the global market will make for interesting sailing for Android, LiMo and even some of the established mobile platform operators.
"[Android] certainly sounds promising," he said, "but device vendors will at some point have to reassess their options because it will not make sense to continue supporting multiple operating systems. The R&D costs would outweigh the benefits and sooner or later one OS will emerge as the de facto standard, alongside Symbian."
"At this stage," he adds, "it would be safe to assume that Android uptake will be quite slow, and a lot of work needs to be done in order for [it] to become a success. It's not to say this is impossible, but it will be an uphill battle."