What, no GPhone? That was the reaction from numerous commentators after Google unveiled its long-anticipated mobile phone plan on 5 November. Yet what Google and partners such as T-Mobile, Motorola and Sprint Nextel of the newly formed Open Handset Alliance are doing will have broad impacts on wireless technology.
At the moment, Google is not releasing any mobile devices on its own. Rather, it has collaborated with several technology and wireless companies to develop Android, an open source platform that can be used by third-party developers to create applications for mobile devices. Although Andy Rubin, Google's director of mobile platforms, won't comment on the company's future plans to create a mobile phone of its own (or not), he does note that "if you were to build a GPhone, you'd build it out of this [Android] platform."
Even without a GPhone, Android is fascinating in its own right. Here's a look at what Android means for the wireless market, for the enterprise, for open source, for Apple and Microsoft, and of course, what it means for Google.
What Android means for the wireless market
Because Android is an open source platform, it will allow users to connect to any network they choose, and will also let them add whatever applications they want. Van Baker, a research vice president at Gartner, says if the platform is successful and becomes widely adopted, it could pressure the major carriers to loosen their grip on their wireless devices. Thus, he says, companies such as Verizon might think twice before they disable Bluetooth on their handsets if they know their customers can easily switch to another carrier that will allow them to do as they please.
Dylan Schiemann, CEO of Web applications developer SitePath, also thinks that Android could go a long way toward prodding carriers to open their devices to more third-party applications.
"The mobile carriers always want to control everything, but they're showing signs of backing off on that," he says. "Carriers have enjoyed a long period where they've controlled what you put on a phone, and where they've charged you for what you put on your phone. If the Android platform works, it could change that dynamic."
While AT&T has yet to publicly comment on the Android announcement, Verizon has given it a warm reception. Jeffrey Nelson, Verizon's executive director of corporate communications, says Verizon "welcomes the support of Google, handset makers and others for our goal of providing more open development of applications on mobile handsets" and that "the highly competitive wireless industry is demonstrating that neither legislation nor regulation is required to produce innovation."
What Android means for the enterprise
Some analysts say the enterprise impact will be minimal, because Google is making a consumer play with Android. But consumers like to bring popular devices to the office, and end up using them for both work and play.
"If it's successful and people have it, it will come into businesses and we'll adapt to it," says CTO Dave Leonard of Infocrossing, an IT outsourcing provider in New Jersey.
It's hard for IT departments to decide whether to support Google's Android, because it's a platform for developing phones, rather than a phone itself, says Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst. Each IT department is likely to pick one type of Android-powered phone to support and not support others, because they don't want to risk lack of interoperability, he says.
A better approach, argues Dan Kohn, COO of the Linux Foundation, is to pick one set of standards that IT will support for calendaring, e-mail applications, VPN and so on, and tell users they can use any mobile phone compatible with those standards.
What Android means for Google
Since Google makes most of its money from its AdSense ad distribution network, it has an interest in giving mobile phone users broad access to the Web. If more people have access to Google on their desktops and mobile devices, then advertisers will pay more for ad space.
Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt ambitiously describes Google's target market: the entire universe of cell phone users.
"There are at least three billion mobile users in the world today, and there are more mobile phones worldwide than there are Internet users or landline phones," Schmidt says. "Getting people access to info is Google's core mission and mobile phones have to be part of that."
Implied in that mission is that Google, in turn, gains access to consumers of advertising.
"Google is enabling advertising in a very real way in the handset world," says Frank Dickson, co-founder and chief research officer of Multimedia Intelligence. "You're going to see a whole host of advertising-supported applications being ... delivered ... into the handset. Google is the most efficient provider of advertising in the online world."
What Android means for open source and Linux
Linux already has a major presence on mobile phones, but the entrance of Google and the Open Handset Alliance - which has 34 member organizations worldwide - adds to the momentum.
"We're a huge believer in diversity of options on mobile phones," Kohn of the Linux Foundation says. "Linux is already an important, growing presence there. I think having the Google software as an additional open source option is only going to accelerate that adoption."
Today's mobile operating systems include Symbian and Windows Mobile. Kohn's key concern is enabling interoperability, so that Web applications designed for one open source phone work well on others. "Although there are a huge number of mobile phones using Linux today, there tends not to be great interoperability between them," he says.
While Kohn welcomes Google's presence, he thinks further crowding of the Linux mobile landscape might confuse matters. There's already the LiMo Foundation, which makes a Linux platform for mobile phones; the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum; and the Mobile Linux Initiative.
"We have so many darn acronyms and different consortiums at this point, that I'd actually hope to see a little consolidation," Kohn says."
What Android means for Microsoft
Nothing - but only if you believe Microsoft.
"We already have an alliance around Windows Mobile, with 160 wireless operators in 55 countries and with 48 device makers," Scott Rockfeld, a mobile communications group product manager at Microsoft, says in a Computerworld story. "Nothing new and revolutionary was announced" with Android, Rockfeld said. "It was ho-hum compared to what we've done for the last five years with Windows Mobile."
But an open source development platform backed by a name like Google could eat into Microsoft's market share, Dickson argues.
"They're struggling because the Microsoft model is licensed software," he says. "When you start licensing software for $20 or $40 on a handset that costs $100 to manufacture, that's quite a hit."
Forrester wireless analyst Charles Golvin says Microsoft should take an approach similar to the one Google is taking with Android. "Competitors like Yahoo and even Microsoft stand to benefit should they embrace this approach," Golvin says. "The impact will build slowly over time as initially the devices using this platform will form a very small percentage of the market."
What Android means for Apple
Apple's iPhone will survive Google's wireless initiative unscathed, partly because Apple's focus is hardware rather than software, and partly because it commands only a small portion of the mobile phone market to begin with, Dickson says.
"Apple is a fraction of a percent of the global market share in handsets," Dickson says. "They're just not that big. ... Because of the size of Apple I don't see a large impact on Apple. I see Apple still providing innovative hardware solutions coupled with well-performing software."
Apple has little need to join Google's open source initiative, according to research issued by financial services company Piper Jaffray.
"While Apple is a closed system, it does allow developers to build applications for the iPhone. We believe that Android will give many phone makers their first access to software with full Web-browsing functionality, which the iPhone already offers," states a research note issued just after Google's announcement. "Apple is confident that its iPhone operating system is a compelling one, and developers will want to build applications for the iPhone.