Android may be a freely available open-source operating system, but Google hasn't shied away from the idea that it hopes to profit by subsidizing its development. And with Google's first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 built by HTC, nigh upon us, it's becoming clearer exactly how.
Google executives have spoken about Android's indirect benefits: the company wants to use it to accelerate the use and sophistication of mobile Internet browsing. "If the Internet is widely available, that's good for us," co-founder Sergey Brin said.
But judging from my testing of a G1 phone, it appears Google wants a more direct benefit, too: more users of Google's online services. Although there's nothing stopping a G1 owner from using online services from Google rivals such as Microsoft and Yahoo, Google technology is built deeply into the G1 and featured prominently as well.
Search ads are of course Google's bread and butter. Android's Web browser can use others' search engines, but a secondary part of the G1's home screen features a prominent Google search box. There's no option to change the search box to use search from Microsoft or Yahoo.
The hooks get a little deeper when things get more personal. The Android phone asks you for your Google account information when you first start it up, and if you have an account, it immediately slurps in your contacts, calendar appointments, and Gmail messages. At this stage of Android development at least, Yahoo and Microsoft don't get that kind of treatment.
The tie-in to these personal services is telling. Google has trounced its competition when it comes to search, a relatively anonymous act, but it hasn't made as much headway when it comes to more deeply personal uses of its services such as e-mail, photo sharing, and social networking. With Android, Google apparently hopes to establish more of this direct contact with Internet users.
E-mail comes in two tiers on the G1. The upper tier is given to Gmail, which gets its own application; others get relegated to the generic e-mail application. I could connect fine to Yahoo Mail, but lacking a Plus account for free POP access, I couldn't try Microsoft Live e-mail.
Personally, I think the two-tier approach makes sense because Gmail fans (I'm among them) can get accustomed to features not commonly available in ordinary e-mail client software, such as conversation view, the ability to archive and star messages, and sophisticated search abilities. Other e-mail services don't need their own applications.
Google also gets a direct link to its online map service. Here again, though, Google has a bit more to offer than its rivals when it comes to online services. As with search, mapping use is a fairly generic activity at this stage, but geographic information can be very personally useful, especially while on the road, and I wouldn't be surprised if Google Maps became much more tightly tuned to each user's needs and account settings.
With instant messaging, Android is neutral. The software can handle Yahoo, AOL's AIM, MSN Messenger, and Google Talk with equal aplomb.
There are of course other possible places that Google could create direct Android ties to personal services. Orkut, iGoogle, Google Reader, and Picasa Web albums spring to mind.
But it's still early days for Android. At the same time Google or others could write applications that dovetail with these services. And by the same token, given Android's free software development kit and unfettered Android Market for offering new applications, I'd expect mobile applications from Google rivals, too. Whether they'll get prime real estate on future Android phones, though, is another matter entirely.