Google has launched an open platform for mobile devices, backed by industry heavyweights, that could shake the wireless market to its core by making it cheaper and easier to develop mobile applications.
The platform, called Android, has been developed by Google and others as part of the Open Handset Alliance, which has over 30 members. The ambitious goal is to spur innovation in the mobile space.
As we reported yesterday,, the open-source platform will have comprise an operating system, middleware stack, customisable user interface and applications.
The first Android-based phones should hit the market in the second half of 2008. The platform will be made available under an open-source licence that will give a lot of flexibility to those who adopt it to modify its components, Google said.
The alliance will release an "early access" software development kit next week, Google said.
Founding members of the alliance include T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm and Motorola, as well as Broadcom, eBay, China Mobile, Intel, LG Electronics, NTT DoCoMo, Nvidia, Samsung, Sprint Nextel, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, Texas Instruments and Wind River.
Noticeably absent from the list is traditional Google ally Apple, whose popular iPhone might see its innovation lead cut sooner than expected thanks to this Google effort.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Android will "create a whole new mobile experience for users with new applications and new capabilities that we couldn't imagine today."
There are about 3 billion mobile users worldwide, so improving their access to internet services and applications fits in with Google's core mission, he said.
Making it easier for people to access Google's search engines and other online services via mobile devices is key to the company, which must extend its advertising business to the wireless world.
Calling Android "the first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices," Schmidt said Google hopes it will power "thousands" of different mobile phones, including, if one were ever to be built, a Google-branded "Gphone."
Android, which a Google spokesman said will be completely free, will be made available under the Android "Apache v2 licence," which Schmidt described as "the most liberal open-source licence given to mobile operators or anyone ever."
"This platform fundamentally means a new level of innovation in many ways: all kinds of new applications that have never been possible in any other mobile device and the acceleration of ways in which these applications are made available to consumers," Schmidt said.
Innovation in the mobile market has been hampered by a lack of collaboration and of technical standards, and by the high costs of development and difficulties in distribution, he said.
This has made software developers, wireless carriers and handset manufacturers less inclined to take risks in product development efforts, he said.
"But mobile users nonetheless want the same applications on their phones that they're accustomed to on the [PC-based] internet," he said, adding that Android will make it possible for developers, operators and handset makers to bring this to consumers.
Joining Schmidt were the CEOs of T-Mobile's parent company Deutsche Telekom, HTC, Qualcomm and Motorola, all of whom supported his statements and said the companies had plans to develop Android-based products, although the executives in general didn't provide many details.
Apparently, most of the Android technology comes from a company by the same name that Google bought in 2005. One of its co-founders, Andy Rubin, now Google's director of mobile platforms, promised more technical details about the platform when the software developer's kit is released next week.
Rubin said that the operating system is based on Linux, and that the components include a full-featured mobile HTML browser, which will be key to improving the mobile internet user experience. The browser will also be crucial for Google to improve its ability to deliver online ads to cell phones.
Asked about Apple's absence from the partner list, particularly since he is an Apple board member, Schmidt said he is also a "happy" iPhone user, but that Android's goal is to generate multiple "mobile experiences" including many that haven't yet been invented.
Still, there is now a clear indication that Apple may not see this Google effort with good eyes, as the alliance could benefit competing handset makers and carriers that don't carry the iPhone. Apple's iPhone carrier partner, AT&T, isn't supporting the Google effort either at this point.
Android could accelerate the pace at which competing handsets catch up with the iPhone's user experience innovations, and thus cut into the iPhone's attractiveness in the market.
A few weeks ago, Apple announced it will release a SDK so that third-party developers can build iPhone applications. It expects to make it available in February.
The SDK will be released next week in an early version that Google hopes to improve upon and evolve as it receives feedback from developers, Rubin said.
As part of this effort, Google plans to provide hosted services that third-party developers can use to distribute their Android-based mobile applications, officials said.
Schmidt dismissed suggestions that making another mobile platform available will create more technical fragmentation because Android will be open to anyone and gives licensees the freedom to modify it at will.
Microsoft and Symbian are two major providers of mobile operating system platforms, so this effort by Google is a direct challenge to their respective offerings.
Google's CEO also said that the fact that Android is free and open will not preclude his company from entering into revenue-sharing agreements with carriers and handset manufacturers related to the provision of Google services and advertising on mobile devices.
Now read Techworld mobility editor Peter Judge's blog on the Android.