Sunday, November 11, 2007

Analyzing Google's "Android"

Analyzing Google's "Android"

If you can measure a new technology's popularity by the number of companies trying to attach their names to it, then Google's new Android mobile-phone platform is a big deal.

By the time I left the office yesterday, I'd heard from the developer of Android's voice-command software, a company providing fonts for Android, a publicist for a competing Linux mobile software effort, yet another mobile-Linux software developer, a firm that sells cheap international cell-phone calling, the Public Knowledge think tank (which basically opined "Yay, Google!") and CTIA, the wireless industry's trade association ("If ever there was evidence that so-called 'net neutrality' rules were not needed, today's news is it").

This kind of breathless anticipation says something--and not just that a lot of people are unhappy with their cell phones. Google's past successes have rightly led people to expect great things from the Mountain View, Calif., company, and now it has given itself one of the toughest tasks imaginable: reinventing the mobile phone with this new, open-source software.

Without prototype phones to test or even pictures of the Android software to study, it's hard to say how well Google might live up to these expectations. But a few things seem clear about this project--formally known as the Open Handset Alliance--from the limited material published so far, press coverage and a phone interview yesterday with Google's Rich Miner, who helps run the company's wireless strategy:

* Although dozens of companies are listed as partners on the Android site, Google started this work and continues to orchestrate the project, Miner said. This isn't a phone by committee, nor is Google inviting the world to inspect and edit the Android source code just yet--though people will have that right, one absent from name-brand phone software, once this platform ships.

* This project also incorporates many contributions from people and companies. For example, its music- and video-playback software comes from a developer called PacketVideo. And Miner said that Android's Web browser is built on the same open-source WebKit software as the Safari browser in Mac OS X and the iPhone. ("Next week, we'll be releasing all of the improvements we've made to WebKit," Miner said--meaning that if Apple incorporates these revisions into Safari, the next iPhone could itself be a bit of a Google phone.)

* The Android software is written to run on cheap handsets, not just flashy, high-end smartphones. Miner said it allows for a variety of input methods, including conventional numeric keypads, QWERTY keyboards and touchscreens. Handwriting recognition is not built in, although Android's open-source license means anybody could add it later.

* The interface remains a secret. Miner would only describe it as "consumer-friendly and state-of-the-art," but said the software-development toolkit to be released on Monday would include a working, preview copy of the Android interface. Considering what Google has done to make Web search, e-mail and mapping--to name a few things--both powerful and simple, cautious optimism seems justified here.

* Miner said Android will be written to allow synchronization to a computer's address book, calendar and other personal-info-management programs. But it will be up to other companies to write appropriate sync software.

* The hardware manufacturers listed as Android partners have all made significant contributions to phone design recently: HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung. The supporting U.S. carriers, Sprint and T-Mobile, have not done as well despite offering more liberal usage terms than AT&T and Verizon (T-Mobile unlocks its phones to allows use with other carriers after the first 90 days of a contract, and Sprint doesn't prohibit broad categories of Internet use with its mobile broadband service). For more on this angle, see veteran tech writer Glenn Fleishman's analysis of Google's partners in the Mac newsletter TidBits.

* Any wireless carrier that adopts the Android software could, however, build a traditional, locked phone with it. During a conference call yesterday afternoon, Android director Andy Rubin and Google CEO Eric Schmidt each said this software's open-source license requires them to offer that freedom--although Schmidt called that "both possible and highly unlikely," in that a locked-down Android phone would only disappoint customers.

* While we'll be able to see what the Android interface looks like starting next week, nobody is predicting the arrival of any Android-powered phones before the second half of next year.

While we all wait, what do you hope to see come out of this Android project?

By Rob Pegoraro
November 6, 2007
Category: Gadgets

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