November 5, 2007 4:50 PM PST
Google's Android has long road ahead
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Part of AT&T's hesitation to commit itself to the Google Alliance at this early stage could stem from its relationship with Apple. AT&T is the exclusive U.S. operator selling and supporting the iPhone. While it's unclear right now how the design and functionality of Android-powered phones will stack up with the iPhone, it's clear that Google's Android software will at the very least offer consumers more choices for surfing the Web on their mobile handsets.
Google executives say they plan to welcome additional companies to the alliance.
"Our goal has been on organizing partners at all parts of the ecosystem," said Rich Miner, who heads up Google's wireless strategy. "We'd be happy to talk to anyone who meets that criterion. I suspect you'll see a lot of handsets based on this platform, and I'm sure they (the carriers) would be attracted by those handsets."
Another major challenge for Google is that it's entering a market already claimed by other companies. Symbian has been doing this kind of work for years and enjoys about 74 percent of the smartphone market, according to Gartner. Symbian's operating system is used on Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones. But the company is not very well known in the U.S., which has lagged the rest of the world in smartphone adoption.
"We think this is a good announcement for the smartphone industry; it shines the spotlight on it in the U.S. in a positive way," said Paul Jarratt, marketing communications manager for Symbian in the United States. "One thing that we'll have to wait and see is what these phones look like; it's not trivial to put a mobile operating system together."
Microsoft has also been a player in this market with Windows Mobile, which currently ranks third in terms of smartphone operating systems behind Symbian and the collective implementations of Linux, according to Gartner. Palm is yet another competitor. The company may have fallen on hard times of late, but its Palm OS Treos are still popular, especially among business users.
Apple has of course made quite a splash this year with the iPhone by pitching a concept similar to Android: a no-compromises computing experience on a mobile phone. Then there is Research in Motion with its line of Blackberry phones, which are often compared to a highly addictive street drug.
The key difference between Google and these other companies is that Google will license Android to anyone who wants it under a very permissive license, allowing phone makers and wireless carriers to modify the software to suit their needs. Microsoft and Symbian license their technology as well, but the terms aren't as open as they will be under the Apache software license, which Google's Schmidt called "one of the most liberal licenses in the world."
It's the openness of this license that could help drive adoption of Google's Android platform.
Today, mobile application developers not only have to write code for several different operating systems, but they must also consider different user interfaces depending on the phone manufacturer and the carrier. The great promise of Android is that it simplifies this for developers. And because the software is open and distributed for free, it should also help reduce costs for cell phone manufacturers that today pay for licenses to use Symbian and Microsoft.
If Google can succeed in making Android compelling to both cell phone users and application developers, the company could be one of three main cell phone platforms on the market.
"The long-term potential impact is to drive the same kind of innovation that we see on the Internet into the mobile environment," said Forrester's Golvin. "But it's a convoluted environment and it will take a long time. In the end, there will likely be three mobile platforms that survive: Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Android."
CNET News.com's Elinor Mills contributed to this report.
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