What, no GPhone? That was the reaction from numerous commentators after Google unveiled its long-anticipated mobile phone plan on November 5. 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, 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.