Far and away the biggest news in the smartphone world this week was the announcement of Android, a new operating system and mobile device platform being put together by a group of companies led by Google. But I’m guessing some of you are wondering why this is such a big deal. There are already a bunch of smartphone operating systems; what’s different about this one?
Let’s see if I can explain it.
The Open Source Advantage
Despite what you might have read, Android’s significance is not going to be in providing an open platform that third-party developers can write mobile applications for. There are already quite a few of these available that you’re well familiar with, like Windows Mobile, Palm OS, BlackBerry, S60, and UIQ.
Instead, Android’s strength is going to come from being an open source project. That means that it will be a team effort that draws participants from all around the world. Having all these companies and individuals working on Android should make the pace of development much faster than what a single company can do.
At the same time, having a broad range of developers should result in a very rich and flexible OS with broad appeal.
A Balancing Act
I hope you understand now how much potential there is in Android. But reaching that potential won’t be easy.
It already has one of the most important things it will need to be successful: broad industry support. Wireless service providers like Sprint and T-Mobile are on board, and so are device makers like Samsung and HTC.
But Google — the de facto head of Open Handset Alliance — is going to have to perform a delicate balancing act if it wants to keep this support. It is going to have to provide strong leadership while at the same time not running roughshod over the other members of the group.
There’s little or no need for another operating system that’s under the close control of a single company. There are a bunch of these already available, and any newcomer has to be really extraordinary to stand out from the pack. Apple can pull this off, but not everyone can.
If Google insists that Android meet its needs at the expense of all others then the Alliance will fall apart and much of the industry support that’s vital for this operating system’s success will fade away.
But the opposite is true, too. There have been attempts to create open source Linux-based operating systems for smartphones before, and these have generally fizzled because they lacked strong leadership. Developers working for the companies that are participating break up into committees that try to come up with compromises to satisfy all the disparate needs, and in the end mostly what’s produced is reams of reports and darn few results.
Google is going to have to find a way for the OHA to make tough calls in which some companies will get what they want and other won’t, without having the whole house of cards come crashing down. That’s the strong leadership I’m talking about.
I think it can do it for one simple reason: Google doesn’t want to develops and sells smartphones, it just wants to sell advertising space on them. That gives the company a strong incentive to succeed in getting Android-based models on the market, without requiring very much of the project to be focused on Google. There’s plenty of room for others to make money from other facets of the device.
Something to Hope For
I give Google credit for thinking outside the box. It could have come out with its own Linux-based smartphone operating system without putting together a group of partners to help develop it. Almost anything is possible when you have access to the kind of money Google does.
But the company seems to have decided that it wasn’t going to beat Windows Mobile by out-Microsofting Microsoft. That never works. Google is taking a different route. Instead of being a lone developer, Google is going to be the leader of a diverse team.
And because it’s doing so, Android currently enjoys a broad developer base and industry support, and it has the potential to be a serious competitor to the heavyweights in the smartphone realm. Not just Windows Mobile, but all the rest too, from BlackBerry to Symbian/S60.
As a general rule, more competition is better, especially when the new competitor is coming out of the gate as strong as Android is. And strong competition leads to better products, which is good for us consumers. So you’ll benefit even if you never buy a device from the Open Handset Alliance.
But this only applies if Android lives up to its potential. Here’s hoping it does.