Android is not the “Google phone” that rumor suggested before the software was launched. Indeed, the company doesn’t really want to own your phone. It just wants to be sure that no other company does. If Android succeeds, it will keep the wireless world safe for Google and whatever services it might seek to offer in the future. Today there are a billion Internet users but nearly three billion people with mobile phones. That’s a lot of eyeballs, and Google is first and foremost an advertising firm. And so it is not surprising that Google may do more than build a new operating system in its effort to entrench itself in the wireless world. At press time, the company was in the process of bidding for wireless-spectrum licenses being auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission.
If Android succeeds, it will have a major impact on wireless carriers. A phone running Google’s component-based operating system, after all, would treat wireless operators like Verizon and AT&T as just another way to reach data services on the Internet. Such a phone could turn today’s wireless providers into commodity data communications networks that also happen to carry voice. This would force the providers to compete in every area–network quality, handset quality, and price–without allowing good performance in one area to lock customers in and support mediocre performance in another. T-Mobile (an OHA member) already gets it: some of its newest phones allow calls over either T‑Mobile’s GSM network or Wi-Fi. I think this change will happen even without the Google phone. I’m seeing more unlocked phones with Wi-Fi capability from companies like Nokia (not an OHA member); just drop in an AT&T SIM card and they’ll play on AT&T’s network. But though the change may happen anyway, Google is pushing it along at a faster clip.
Just as Google’s place in the wireless world is a work in progress, so too is Android, which I suspect will not be limited to cell phones. If it’s successful, we’re likely to see Android as the basis of other handheld devices: digital cameras, GPS receivers, or even lightweight tablet computers. If Android really works, it’s going to change the face of mobile computing.
Simson Garfinkel is an associate professor of computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and a contributing editor at Technology Review.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.