December 6, 2007

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Phone frenzy, part 2
Your new android master
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

In August of 2005, BusinessWeek treated the world to the following headline: “Google Buys Android for Its Mobile Arsenal.”

Maybe they were trying to warn us of the online search giant’s preparations for mechanized domination, but the article went on to explain that Google had bought Android, Inc., a California start-up company that made software for mobile phones. Apple’s iPhone was still in development, a year and a half from announcement, but rumors about it abounded. The news of Google’s purchase sparked the obvious question: would they be making some kind of awesome, it-does-everything phone as well?

More than two years later, the answer is here: no. At least, not anytime soon.

What has apparently come out of the acquisition is a new operating system for phones, and an open source one at that. Google is one of 30 companies making up the Open Handset Alliance and pushing Android, a software platform based on Linux. The goal is for new mobile phone handsets to run a version of this free software rather than custom-made operating systems.

The 30 companies include some heavyweights of the phone business: Samsung, Motorola, LG and HTC, the original equipment manufacturer behind many smartphones like T-Mobile’s Wing. T-Mobile itself is part of the alliance as well, along with Sprint and several providers in other countries. They join Intel, Texas Instruments and a few companies only die-hard fans of the telecommunications industry ever would have heard of, like, The Amazing Tribe and Esmertec, to name a few with colorful appellations.

So ... what’s the big deal? Software for cell phones. Big whoop. Well, it is a big whoop, simply because of the huge market potential. Around the world, more people own cell phones than televisions, and for many, it’s their only piece of modern technology. People have been predicting the death of the desktop computer since it came out, but the rise of truly capable phones — devices that fit in your pocket and take pictures, edit documents, play games and access the Internet — might actually be a suitable replacement for many folks, especially in the developing world. And killing the desktop means really hurting Microsoft, who’s made only small inroads into the phone market so far.

Of course, making money from free software isn’t the most obvious of business models. It’s not like you can charge for it, right? The details aren’t exactly clear, but members of the alliance will certainly benefit by being the driving force behind the software platform. Anyone with programming skills will be able to modify the core operating system, but distributors won’t be obligated to make all their changes freely available, as some open source licenses require. The handset makers and service providers hope to gain a competitive advantage by having phones that can accept new applications and functions, and whatever revenue they bring in could certainly be shared with other members of the alliance.

Or maybe a bunch of huge companies just want us all to have free software. That’s always possible.