Why you should care about Google Android

The search specialist's open-source mobile plaform has the telephony industry hot under the collar — but what will it mean for the average business user?
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

Is there such a thing as a Google phone, or "Gphone", yet?

No. Google has announced an industry group, the Open Handset Alliance, which promises to produce phones by the second half of next year — and promises, furthermore, that they will be exciting in ways that have yet to be announced.

The phones will use a free Linux operating system from Google subsidiary Android, which is producing a free software-development kit for phone makers and application developers, released under the Apache v2 licence. A "first look" at the SDK will be released on 12 November.

Will there ever be a Gphone?
Google won't say, and the answer depends on the conditions handset makers and operators agree to. The world of phones is undergoing a branding crisis: operators such as O2 and Vodafone want their name on the phones, and so do most handset manufacturers, such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson and now Apple.

If all goes according to plan, there will be lots of phones based on the Open Handset Alliance, running Google-based services. Handset maker HTC, previously wedded to Microsoft's Windows Mobile, has promised to deliver Android phones.

But however much people love Google, it's not clear whether they want a Google-branded phone.

What will Android phones do?
It is all speculation. Spokespeople have talked of "innovations we can't even envisage yet" — which translates as "we don't know".

We can say that they will have a good browser, one that people will actually want to use. There won't be any point launching the phones otherwise. They'll support services that, like most projected "killer-apps" for mobile internet, will be location-based and identity-based. Essentially, Google's targeted adverts beamed to you and relevant to where you are.

Oh, and there will definitely be Android devices with touchscreens. Since the iPhone, everything has to have a touchscreen, we understand.

Will the phones be open?
Again, this is not clear. The software will be open source, and will provide a platform (probably several, including Java and web browser) for operators to develop applications on.

But that does not require the handset maker or the operator to deliver an "unlocked" phone that lets the user choose applications (and possibly operators). Operators may want to lock these phones into specific services, just as they do with phones such as the iPhone, and there's nothing to stop such contracts emerging.

So why is Google doing this then?
Advertising revenue. There are projections of billions of dollars of advertising revenue from the mobile internet. Google wants to hoover up as much of that as it can, just as it already does with internet advertising accessed over fixed links. It already has some deals, for instance to put Google Maps on Sony Ericsson phones, but it believes it could do a lot better if operators can be persuaded to let users out of their walled gardens.

What's in it for the operators?
In exchange for giving up their walled gardens, the operators get the promise of a cheaper handset platform, and one which will develop faster and have more applications — if the Android ecosystem works as planned.

Has anyone put Linux on a mobile phone before?
Plenty of people have tried, and anyone wanting to sneer at Android's chances only has to point to the numbers of Linux phone alliances that have been tried before.

In fact, Linux phones are quite successful in the Far East, where they have a respectable market share in smartphones, and ship in volumes comparable to that of Windows Mobile. Both those operating systems pale beside the market share of Symbian however, which provides an open platform, which anyone can develop to, albeit one that the operators have to pay a licence fee for.

What's been the problem with mobile Linux?
It's been difficult to persuade the diverse Linux community to create the kind of single monolithic software that a phone needs, then to persuade operators to use it and developers to build to it, and finally users to buy it.

With 34 members, including significant operators (Telefonica O2 and T-Mobile, and KDDI and DoCoMo in Asia) Android is already doing far better than any previous Linux phone effort.

Will Android phones be useful in business?
They'll be as useful as any other smartphone. Like all significant phone developments, and most web developments at present, Android is aimed squarely at consumers. That's where there is money, and individuals with the freedom to spend it.

Businesses are too conservative to adopt Android quickly, and may well be scared of it initially if they perceive its openness as increasing the risk of malware.

Will Android succeed?
Google announced the Android platform along with other members of the Open Handset Alliance, a group of 34 hardware and software companies plus wireless carriers committed to creating open standards for mobile devices.

To succeed, it has to get a large market share, persuading operators to actually deliver handsets and significant numbers of users to adopt it. Google says that three billion people have mobile phones, compared with the billion on the internet — but the majority of those phones are low-end feature phones that won't be able to benefit from Android. Most of the users are on pre-pay rather than a contract, so they won't be able to benefit from the high-value, identity-related services that might be offered on top of Android.

Another problem is that phone screens are smaller, so it may be physically difficult for Google to squeeze enough ads in without annoying the users.

Openness may count in its favour, but the success of the iPhone may well demonstrate that users generally don't care about openness, as long as there's a convincing advertising campaign.

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