Google’s Android Arrives: Not Gphone But An Open Source Mobile Phone Platform

Open Handset Alliance

After literally years of anticipation, rumor, and increasingly aggressive speculation about a Google Phone, Google has formally announced that the Gphone cometh — sort of. Today, the company has gone public with news of an open source mobile operating system called "Android," named after the company Google acquired in 2005. Backing Android is the Open Handset Alliance, a group of over 30 companies all pledging to contribute to the project. Below, a detailed, comprehensive look based on a pre-briefing with Google and from today’s news conference.

A Little History

Back in 2005, Google quietly acquired a little-known company named Android, which was founded by Andy Rubin, now Google’s director of mobile products. Rubin was previously at WebTV and the former CEO of Danger, which developed the Danger platform and Sidekick mobile device (used by T-Mobile).

Android had barely gotten off the ground and was looking for investors when Google bought the company and brought Rubin and his team in house. (There’s an interesting profile of Rubin in yesterday’s New York Times.) The company became a Google project, culminating in the mobile platform being announced today.

The Android Platform

What is Android exactly? Think Windows or Linux or MacOS for mobile phones. Just like computers, mobile phones have an operating system that lets them do various things, from placing phone calls to "smart phones" that can run sophisticated software programs like word processing apps or games.

Android is a new operating system. Developers and programmers can write software for it, plus it will ship with some bundled applications such as a mobile browser and an instant messaging client. In particular, Android is billed as a platform intended to radically simplify the process and reduce the cost of building applications for mobile phones. The SDK — the software development kit allowing programmers to write software for the Android platform — is being made available on November 12.

That’s the developer-facing side of it. The other side is the expectation that these tools will help deliver better user experiences as well.

Open Handset Alliance

While Android takes its name from a company Google acquired — and while Google is the driving force behind the new platform — Android is being back and built by more than Google. Like the Firefox browser, Android is "open source," meaning that anyone can use it, modify it, and contribute to the project.

In particular, a group of 34 companies (including Google) are currently contributing and overseeing Android. This group — the Open Handset Alliance – is divided into these major categories:

  • Handset Makers (like HTC and LG)
  • Cell Phone Carriers (such as Sprint)
  • Software Companies
  • Semiconductor / Chip Companies (such as Intel)
  • Commercialization Partners

Here’s the full list, as of press time:

HTC and LG had been named as hypothetical manufacturers for the Google-branded handset that many were anticipating. The obvious name missing from the list of handset makers is the world’s top one, Nokia, which is evolving its business to include services, content, and advertising, putting it into a more directly competitive relationship with Google. It will be interesting to see if Nokia joins later.

The list of carriers at launch includes many of the major operators from around the world. Obviously missing are Verizon and AT&T in the US and Vodafone in Europe. Google has a relationship with Vodafone, and so I would expect the company will join. There were also rumors last week about a potential Verizon relationship. Verizon Wireless is partly owned by Vodafone and all indicators point to Verizon participation as well.

AT&T, which is the sole U.S. carrier to offer the Apple iPhone, is a more dubious prospect. AT&T has historically opposed Google on several fronts, including net neutrality and the proposed ground rules surrounding forthcoming auction of 700 MHZ wireless spectrum. The company is thus likely to sit on the sidelines and see how the initiative develops.

Gphone: Will We Get A Google Phone?

So much early speculation surrounded a Google-branded device (the "GPhone"), and some people will undoubtedly be disappointed that this announcement doesn’t include one. Is a Gphone now out of the question? Google won’t comment on the possibility as a "forward looking statement." While it may never come to pass, this announcement does not preclude Google from working with partners to offer a branded handset at some future point. [Forbes has an article out talking about "Dream" prototypes of a Gphone said to be built.]

Google-branded or not, when are the first phones using Android likely to appear? Rubin, in a briefing with us last Thursday, said that it would likely be "mid-08" before consumers would see any phones using the operating system.

[NOTE FROM DANNY SULLIVAN: I think we'll undoubtedly see a Google branded phone emerge. Indeed, the entire project seems to be a savvy way for Google to enlist the support of many companies that might oppose it trying to push its own phone. The pitch that they're all contributing to a common platform is compelling. But it also will remain compelling for Google to use that platform to push something especially equipped to interact with Google products and services, perhaps with Google advertising embedded as a way to give the phone away for free, something Google's Eric Schmidt has talked about doing -- though in today's press conference, Google said there would be no ad-driven phone for some time and Rubin called the idea crazy in a USA Today interview. We'll see].

Will all Android phones be the same, in the way that many Windows Mobile devices operate in a similar manner, despite who actually makes them? Not necessarily. According to Rubin, while the platform will offer consistency and standardization for developers, the interface and what is ultimately built with the platform will not require it.

He doesn’t envision, for example, a uniform, Google-branded interface or some other type of homogeneity across phones using Android. Rubin described the platform instead as a "toolbox" for carriers and OEMs to build their own branded and differentiated experiences.

"Google will include its apps suite with the platform, but since the platform is open, a manufacturer or operator can remove some or all the applications," Rubin said.

Those apps, by the way, include a web browser based on WebCore (which Apple’s Safari uses) and an IM client that will support Google and other "major" IM providers.

Rubin also sees the eventual development of a gallery, like Google Gadgets, that will allow any application written for the platform to be accessed or downloaded by any user with one of the participating alliance phones. That will offer customization options and control to end users that they don’t currently enjoy, especially in the US market.

If anyone can build what they like out of this platform and related applications, and no Google branding is required, some might be inclined to ask, why is Google doing all this? Call it a case of "enlightened self interest." Google sees the Android platform accelerating the development of the mobile Internet in general, which in turn will benefit the company as usage and ad revenues grow. (The Local Mobile Search Advisory Service I run has forecast $5.08 billion in mobile ad revenues for North America and Western Europe by 2012.)

What About Apple’s iPhone, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Others?

It will take a little time to sort through how Android and the Open Handset Alliance may impact third party vendors such as Medio Systems, JumpTap, InfoSpace/Motricity, Action Engine, or mobile "platforms" such as uLocate’s Where or ZenZui. Everyone, however, will be compelled to react and take a position. ZDNet has a fun "winners/losers" chart to consider.

Android is clearly competitive with proprietary mobile operating systems such as Windows Mobile, in the same way that the open source movement competes with many of Microsoft’s core products. However, nothing prevents Microsoft from joining and writing applications that would work on the platform and participating phones. Indeed, it would be shrewd for Microsoft and Yahoo do just that, participate to ensure that users got access to their branded tools and services on this platform.

When asked directly about this possibility, Rubin said "The idea isn’t to make it an elite club, everybody’s welcome."

Indeed, the alliance has an interesting parallel to what Google is seeking to do on the desktop and with social networks in its OpenSocial initiative. There, the solution to taking on current social networking darling Facebook has been to play in the idea that Facebook is a "closed’ platform and offer an "open" alternative to entice developers.

That leads directly to that current darling of the cell phone world, Apple’s iPhone. The announcement and launch of Apple’s enormously popular iPhone was a "watershed moment" in the development of the mobile internet, delivering a new experience that many users never expected from a handset (though, as the New York Times notes, Microsoft still has 10 percent of the smart phone market compared to Apple’s 1.8 percent).

Like Facebook, the iPhone is largely closed platform. And like Facebook, Apple is a trailblazer whose offering could be diminished somewhat by widespread adoption of Google’s open source initiatives. And the irony is large there, considering that Google CEO Eric Schmidt also serves on Apple’s board of directors. However, when we talked with him, Rubin said he didn’t think the project would irritate Apple. And Schmidt said in today’s press conference that he’s a happy iPhone user. FYI, we asked if Google employees would begin to use Android-powered phones when available. Rubin said he expected some would do this naturally but that there was no mandatory order expected.

Will Android-phones — or an actual future Gphone — be an iPhone killer? Expect in the wake of today’s news a range of headlines declaring this to be the case. But until phones come on the market, no one can tell.

For more, see also:

Postscript (Greg): On the conference call held this morning, in addition to Google, a variety of the members of the Open Handset Alliance spoke, including Motorola, Qualcomm, and HTC. Most of them expressed enthusiasm for the potential they saw and the opportunity for better user experiences, next-generation devices, and so on. The formal presentation part of the call was a verbal discussion of much of the same information that was offered in the press release and some of the news reports. The Q&A was lively but didn’t lead to much new information. However, there were a couple of things that I found interesting:

  • Eric Schmidt said, "Weren’t not announcing a Google phone today. But if there were to be a Google phone Android would be an excellent platform to develop it on." By implication this is a statement that a Google phone will almost certainly be developed at some point.
     
  • The other thing that I found interesting was a throwaway reference to devices and uses of Android that haven’t yet been contemplated. Schmidt, and I believe Rubin, suggested that the platform could be used in ways that have little to do with mobile phones. That’s an intriguing scenario: What would those devices and uses be? I’m sure there are some thoughts in the minds of some people at the Googleplex or on a whiteboard somewhere . . .

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile | Google: Mobile

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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