Study: Google Android faces big problems, tight deadline

A new study says Google faces some big problems in making its Android handset software stack a success

A new study says Google faces some big problems in making its Android handset software stack a success.

Some are basic but essential, like enlisting the enthusiasm of, and supporting, Linux mobile developers. Others are more systemic, like coming up with a viable model to compensate content developers, and convincing wireless network operators to share revenues with these developers.

And Google's time is limited, according to the study. "If Google fails [to win Linux developer backing] by mid-2008, Android will never achieve the critical mass necessary to compete with Windows Mobile and Symbian" platforms, the report concludes.

The 55-page analysis, titled "Google Android and the Wireless Ecosystem: Will the Mobile Future be Google's Future?" was released this week by its joint authors, Mind Commerce, a technology research and consulting firm, and the Mobile Consumer Lab at the International University of Japan. A summary of key findings is available online, but the report itself has to be purchased via the Mind Commerce site.

The report's authors say Google's US$10 million "developers challenge" fund for Android is "nice" but no substitute for a "long term vision for how content developers will be compensated." The greatest power to thwart Android lies in the hands of network operators, according to the report, unless these companies are willing to come to terms with some kind of revenue sharing scheme with developers. And somehow, the report says, Google has to convince a third vital group, of handset manufacturers, to focus powerfully on exploiting the Android software stack in their products.

But Google and its Open Handset Alliance partners aren't the only ones betting big on the mobile phone market. Rivals include, besides Microsoft and Symbian, Research in Motion, several Linux platform providers, Apple, Palm and others.

The mobile Linux world is a complex, evolving stew of experimentation, as much with business models as with code. The dominance of Microsoft's mobile platforms and of Symbian seems less of an obstacle than an inspiration for everyone from garage coders to carriers and multi-national handset manufacturers. Sprint and more recently Verizon Wireless have vowed to open their 3G and eventually 4G networks to third-party developers, a move that could be a boost for mobile Linux development.

Linux developers active in mobile applications have been growing in number, and their efforts have become more systematic. Network World Test Alliance member Tom Henderson found a range of Linux-based products, many of them mobile devices, at last year's Consumer Electronics Shows in Las Vegas.

The Linux Phone Standards Forum (LiPS) completed the first release of its mobile phone specification in December. It added to its June 2007 release APIs for telephony, messaging, calendar, instant messaging and presence functions, as well as new user interface components. The idea is to allow developers to create applications that will work on all phones that use the LiPS specification. Another group, LiMo, was founded almost exactly a year ago by Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone, Samsung and others to build a mobile Linux platform.

The interest has drawn the attention and efforts of platform vendors such as MontaVista and a la Mobile, both targeting mobile devices and mobile phones in particular with increasingly robust and full-feature Linux offerings, and support. MontaVista released its latest version in September, with improved security and power management features. A la Mobile earlier released a new version of its software stack that includes a standard Session Initiations Protocol-based VoIP client.

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