Last November, Google and 33 other companies announced the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), a new industry consortium that, in promoting open standards for mobile devices, promises to reinvent the cell phone–and possibly the entire wireless-telecommunications industry. While that’s a tall order, I suspect that handsets, which Google intends to make as customizable as laptop computers, are just the beginning of the company’s mobile efforts.
The word “open” in OHA’s name is not just a buzzword: it signifies a radical departure from today’s cellular networks, especially those in the United States. Today’s cellular ecologies aren’t exactly closed; it’s possible to load third-party applications onto some cell phones, and websites belonging to third-party providers such as Google can be accessed. Verizon (not an OHA member) has even announced its willingness to open its network to non-Verizon phones. But that openness is all at the periphery: wireless providers today offer just enough choice in phones, features, and services to remain competitive while preventing consumers from using rival technology and defecting to other carriers.
Indeed, companies like Verizon and AT&T (also not an OHA member) operate vertically integrated telecommunication ecologies of stores, resellers, content providers, and network services–all with the goal of extracting as much revenue as possible from a customer base that’s kept captive with multiuser contracts, exclusive hardware offerings, and free in-network calling. The wireless industry’s favorite metric is “average revenue per user.”
This approach–using integrated services to extract maximum revenue–will slowly evaporate if OHA is successful. And the key to that success will be Android, a new software “stack” for mobile phones that’s based on open-source software and a revolutionary programming paradigm.
Android is called a “stack” because its software extends from the lowest levels controlling the phone’s hardware to the highest levels of user interaction. At the bottom is a stripped-down version of the Linux kernel (the heart of the Linux operating system). On top of the kernel is the open-source WebKit Web browser (also used by Apple’s iPhone) and several other open-source programs. On top of this are user applications that are beautiful but, at least in the developer’s preview version, primitive and buggy. Once Google finishes this release, Android is going to look as pretty as the iPhone–and it will be just as functional, if not more so.
The first thing to point out is that you can’t run Android on a phone that you might have today. Instead, manufacturers like HTC, LG, Samsung, and Motorola (all OHA members) will need to adapt it to future handsets. If the consortium has its way, these phones will be available in stores in the second half of 2008. You’ll also be able to buy an Android-based phone over the Internet and drop in a chip from the cell phone that’s in your pocket today, assuming you have a cell phone from T-Mobile, AT&T, or another provider that uses the GSM transmission standard.
Android’s developers envision a world where today’s integrated wireless systems are reduced to a set of relationships between parts that are more or less interchangeable. Consumers will be free to load their phones with applications of their own choosing–free applications, applications available for sale, and custom applications developed by enterprises for their employees. These applications will be able to communicate with third-party services offered over the Internet–using any available communications pipe, be it the cellular network, a nearby Wi-Fi connection, or even a Bluetooth connection from another phone.