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Updated: Google pursues open OS to penetrate wireless market

Google today finally revealed its long-awaited ‘Gphone’ plans, but instead of producing its own handset, the Internet giant is taking a completely different approach: proliferating its software and applications through standards.

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Google and 33 other wireless and Internet companies announced the creation of the Open Handset Alliance, which will release an open operating system, middleware and user interface platform called Android. The Alliance, which includes T-Mobile, Motorola, HTC and Qualcomm, will develop, distribute and license the code for free with the aim of putting the stack on as any many devices as possible. It’s on top of this platform that Google plans to build mobile versions of its pervasive online applications.

“This is not the Gphone,” Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt said. Rather it will be a platform around which phones are designed and Google and hundreds of other companies can build their applications, basically allowing any carrier, handset vendor or customer to customize their own ‘Gphone’ with Google’s freely available services, Schmidt said. “They will have much better access to standard Internet experiences and ultimately a much better mobile experience.”

Though billed as a new initiative, much of the Open Handset Alliance’s work is already done. Android is actually the product of a Silicon Valley start-up of the same name, which Google acquired in 2005. The co-founder of Android is Andy Rubin, Google’s director of mobile platforms. In fact, the core Android software stack is ready to go live—the Alliance will release a software development kit (SDK) to applications programmers next week. Until that SDK goes live, though, Google and its partners aren’t releasing too many details about the new operating system. Rubin revealed that the software will be based on Linux and, like Linux, will be entirely open-source, meaning everyone will have access—and can change—the core programming code of the OS.

As billed, the Android software will be the first open-source and freely distributed OS in the market, pitting it against established but licensed OSs like Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and the Symbian OS. That openness, however, appears to be key to Google’s strategy for gaining acceptance of the platform. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that when he and college roommate Larry Page developed Google’s search engine in 1998, they relied heavily on open-source platforms such as Google and standardized Internet protocols like HTTP.

“We were able to build really incredible things because there was a set of tools that allowed us to that,” Brin said. “That’s what we’re looking at today: We’re looking at a very open system.”

One aspect of the OS Google emphasized was its browser, which Rubin said would be the key feature, from the user’s perspective, to differentiate Android-powered phones from other smartphones. Rubin said the OS would feature a powerful HTML browser that would render standard Internet HTML pages on the phone rather than WAP or mobile-optimized pages. While many other companies have taken a similar approach to the mobile Web—most notably Apple and Nokia incorporating the Safari HTML browser into their devices—Rubin implied that Android may go further. Google traditionally takes a thin-client approach to computing, running its applications on the network through the Web browser. Google may opt to take the same approach with the Mobile Internet, eschewing downloadable apps for widgets that graft directly into the OS browser. The approach could also allow it to easily transfer many of its developer community’s current PC-based applications to the new phone platform.

The first phones with the Android software won’t be available until the second half of 2008, giving Google and its new alliance a long lead time to court new members, develop their operating system and build the end-user applications on top of it. The question remains, however, whether it will get the necessary support from the wireless industry to support its latest initiative.

Here's the trick to playing the "open" game, as Google is doing with its new OpenSocial and Open Handset Alliance inititiaves: It only really works if you absolutely dominate and make boatloads of money in a market sector that is NOT open.

While both Motorola and HTC have both joined the Alliance, no other handset makers were named in the deal. Motorola CEO Ed Zander said Android’s open platform fits in with Motorola’s previous development work with Linux-based OSs, which resulted in its highly popular Asian smartphone, the Ming. But Motorola has one of the most fragmented approaches to OSs in the industry, producing Symbian and Windows Mobile smartphones alongside Linux devices and high-end feature phones powered by proprietary software. Just last month, Motorola added a new kink to its OS strategy by taking a 50% stake in UIQ, a user interface platform that grafts onto the Symbian OS.

HTC also builds devices with different OSs, often on specifications laid out by carrier and vendor customers. HTC CEO Peter Chou said supporting Android will not refocus the company’s smartphone efforts on the new open-platform but provide it with another alternative. “We actually look at this as an opportunity to innovate further,” he said, but “our commitment to other operating systems won’t be changing.”

Getting the other handset makers on board may prove tricky. The world’s largest, Nokia, is the primary shareholder in Symbian, and its Symbian-based Series 60 phones dominate the smartphone market. While Nokia has dabbled with open-source OSs in its Internet tablet device lines, it’s unlikely it would abandon its carefully cultivated smartphone platform in favor of Google’s new wide-open framework. Without the world’s largest handset maker in the alliance and other handset makers drawing from a handful of competing OSs, the Android platform isn’t going to unify the mobile phone OS, as Google claims, but rather fragment it further.

But the alliance hinted that it might pursue a different market than the traditional handset vendor. Instead of clashing with Microsoft and Nokia for high-end handsets, it may take the low-road, seeking to replace the proprietary operating systems that power most feature phones today. By virtue of its open license, the OS is by definition free, which could allow it to scale down to sub-$200 handsets. As for the high-end hardware, Paul Jacobs, CEO of Alliance member Qualcomm said chipset vendors are rapidly developing low-priced silicon that can bring rich multimedia capabilities down to mid-ranged devices.

Even if Android gains hardware momentum, the biggest obstacle remains: The operators themselves. The carriers control not only the data connections Google’s Internet-focused plans will lean on, but in the case of the U.S., the distribution of the phones. Signing up Deutsche Telekom is a huge step toward gaining carrier acceptance and gives Android developers a significant outlet for their work in Europe as well as the U.S. The launch of an Android-based phone will likely coincide closely with the launch of T-Mobile’s UMTS network in the U.S.

Of the other two companies Google was reportedly in discussions with, Sprint joined the alliance, and even then it’s unclear if Sprint’s work with Google is an extension of the WiMAX deal it struck with the Internet company for portal services or if it will represents Sprint’s acceptance of Android for its core cellular services. Verizon Wireless did not appear in the Alliance’s roster. Neither did the largest U.S. carrier, AT&T, which as a GSM operator could support any global phone built on the Android platform.

Verizon Wireless, which has fought plenty with Google in the past, did not cast aspersions on Google’s new initiative, though. VZW spokesman Jeffery Nelson said Verizon would welcome any new innovation that spurred mobile data services. “We haven’t ruled out joining this group,” he said.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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