Mobile Developers Get to Tinker With Google’s Android

After months of speculation and rumors about its mobile plans, Google and a raft of supporting companies gathered Monday to announce Android, a new platform billed as the first truly open and comprehensive application for mobile devices.

The platform is the result of a collaboration including T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm, Motorola and others through the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), a new multinational alliance of 34 technology and mobile industry leaders that seeks to foster innovation and lower the cost of developing and distributing mobile devices and services.

The Android platform will be made available under a progressive open source license, giving mobile operators and device manufacturers significant freedom to design products, Google said. An early access software development kit will be released next week to give developers the tools to create new applications for the platform.

Bigger Than a Gphone

“This partnership will help unleash the potential of mobile technology for billions of users around the world,” said Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt. “A fresh approach to fostering innovation in the mobile industry will help shape a new computing environment that will change the way people access and share information in the future.

“Today’s announcement is more ambitious than any single ‘Google Phone’ that the press has been speculating about over the past few weeks,” Schmidt added. “Our vision is that the powerful platform we’re unveiling will power thousands of different phone models.”

Other members of the alliance are Aplix, Ascender, Audience, Broadcom, China Mobile, eBay, Esmertec, Intel, KDDI, LivingImage, LG, Marvell, NMS Communications, Noser, NTT DoCoMo, Nuance, Nvidia, PacketVideo, Samsung, SiRF, SkyPop, SONiVOX, Sprint Nextel, Synaptics, TAT (The Astonishing Tribe), Telecom Italia, Telefnica, Texas Instruments and Wind River.

Devices in 2008

“As a founding member of the Open Handset Alliance, T-Mobile is committed to innovation and fostering an open platform for wireless services to meet the rapidly evolving and emerging needs of wireless customers,” said Ren Obermann, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s parent company.

“Google has been an established partner for T-Mobile’s groundbreaking approach to bring the mobile open Internet to the mass market,” Obermann added. “We see the Android platform as an exciting opportunity to launch robust wireless Internet and Web 2.0 services for T-Mobile customers in the U.S. and Europe in 2008.”

HTC plans to release its first Android-based device in the second half of next year, company CEO Peter Chou added.

Open Relationships, Too

“Our participation in the Open Handset Alliance and integration of the Android platform enables us to expand our device portfolio into a new category of connected mobile phones that will change the complexion of the mobile industry and recreate user expectations of the mobile phone experience,” Chou said.

Even as it supports Android, HTC will continue its current commitment to other mobile operating systems as well, Chou told reporters at a news conference Monday. Motorola would continue its commitments with existing partners and vendors, said Ed Zander, chairman and CEO of Motorola.

“The wireless Internet is opening up opportunities for the entire industry, so we can focus on growing the pie rather than how to cut the pie up,” Paul Jacobs, CEO of Qualcomm, asserted. “There is the potential for many different operating systems and environments to be supported.”

A Bold Effort

Google’s announcement is a bold one, Neil Strother, wireless analyst with JupiterResearch, told TechNewsWorld.

“Essentially, what Google is saying with these partners is that they want to change the game for mobile in a pretty big way,” he noted. “When you have companies like China Mobile, T-Mobile and Motorola, you’re talking a significant number of powerful players.”

That may be true, but only time will tell what kind of impact the announcement really has, Ira Brodsky, president of Datacomm Research, told TechNewsWorld. Brodsky is working on a book on the history of the wireless industry.

“This is one of dozens — or maybe hundreds — of announcements of this kind over time,” Brodsky said. “Some come to fruition; some don’t.”

Clash with Operators?

There have also been several efforts to bring Linux and openness to mobile platforms already, he added, so “this is hardly a new concept. What is new is adding the clout of Google.”

Manufacturers of chips and handsets are behind the effort because “they want to see what will happen,” but operators may be more hesitant in the long run, Brodsky said.

“I think this will clash with what operators want to do,” he explained. “Operators realize that the handset is a very big part of their identity as a brand. Why would they go full-out to make handsets all look the same and have the same applications, when the big winner will be Google?

“The world is not interested in having a brand-amorphous environment where everything does everything in the same way,” Brodsky added. “People will have different ideas about how best to do things — they may not all want to do it Google’s way.”

‘A Positive Move’

Lower costs also don’t depend on uniting behind a single platform, Brodsky noted.

“It may make sense on the surface, but in reality, people figure out ways to support more than one,” he explained. “That keeps things competitive, which is what really keeps prices down.”

MontaVista, whose Mobilinux powers some 35 million phones throughout the world, welcomes the announcement, CEO Tom Kelly told TechNewsWorld.

“We think it’s a very positive move for the industry,” he said. “Linux is absolutely an incredibly powerful operating system that can provide more power to mobile devices than other contenders in the marketplace. I’m sure we’ll join the alliance.”

Cementing Linux’s Place

One of the big limitations facing Linux on mobile devices so far has been a lack of an off-the-shelf application stack, added Jim Ready, MontaVista’s founder and chief technical officer. “The real news here is not the Linux part, but a relatively comprehensive upper layer that completes the picture,” he said.

“This completely cements Linux’s place as a foundational operating system for mobile devices, and that’s good for us,” Ready added. “The people who need to be worried are companies like Microsoft and Symbian.” Microsoft and Symbian both make operating systems for mobile devices.

Indeed, asked by a reporter whether the likes of Symbian, Apple and Research in Motion (RIM) had been invited to join the alliance, Google’s Andy Rubin, director of mobile platforms, simply said, “This isn’t a closed alliance — it will remain open to those who want to contribute.”

Enough to Change the Game?

Ultimately, then, it remains to be seen where Google’s announcement goes from here.

“The real proof is still in actually creating great products people want to buy, and announcing something doesn’t prove that,” Brodsky concluded.

“It will be interesting to see how this plays out,” added Strother. “Will developers go with it? Will it become a new standard? It sounds great, but there are a lot of competing platforms out there. The question is, is this enough to change the game?”

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