Will Google's Android Further Fragment The Mobile Market? - InformationWeek

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11/5/2007
04:46 PM
Stephen Wellman
Stephen Wellman
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Will Google's Android Further Fragment The Mobile Market?

Google earlier today answered months of endless gossip and blog posts. While there is no gPhone -- at least not for now -- Google's new mobile linux platform, Android, could translate into millions of

Google earlier today answered months of endless gossip and blog posts. While there is no gPhone -- at least not for now -- Google's new mobile linux platform, Android, could translate into millions of Google-powered phones in the marketplace in the next few years. But Google's new OS also promises to further balkanize an industry plagued by device and OS fragmentation.During the press conference, Google's representatives beamed that the upcoming Android SDK and terms of service would be among the "most broad and liberal" in the wireless industry. Android promises to provide developers and handset makers with an incredibly flexible and powerful mobile OS and development environment.

Three questions popped into my head during today's press conference. Isn't the mobile OS market already pretty fragmented? Does the mobile handset market need yet another flavor of mobile linux? And if the platform is this open, what's to stop carriers like Verizon Wireless or AT&T from using Android to create closed, white-label phones that are just as locked down as today's handsets?

Nothing in today's press conference really answered any of these questions.

As for question one, the mobile handset market is already pretty balkanized. Even within one operating system, like Windows Mobile or Symbian, there are key differences between the ways any given OS works between two different handset makers (such as Windows Mobile on HTC smartphones vs. Windows Mobile on Motorola devices). And this is with one proprietary OS, Windows Mobile.

If you look laterally, these issues also apply to other mobile OS ecosystems, like Symbian (which is an open mobile OS, btw). In the Symbian world, you have competing interfaces, like Nokia's S60 vs. UIQ.

Once you take a step back, you see even more balkanization, with the various flavors of Windows Mobile, S60 Symbian, UIQ Symbian, Palm, 22 (or more) versions of mobile linux, J2ME (Sun's version of mobile Java), etc. On top of this, each of the handset makers has their own proprietary OS (or multiple proprietary OSes) that compete with all of the above.

Google has now decided to climb into this ring and add even more options. Google could be the tipping point for open source in the wireless industry, leveraging its clout and turning Android into the default standard for linux in the wireless industry.

Then again, Android could also add to the current problem of mobile device and OS balkanization. I'd like to think that Google can clean this mess up, but given how hard Microsoft, Symbian, Sun, and others have worked to bring unity to this market -- and the fact that this problem has only gotten worse with time, not better -- makes me think that Google clearly has its work cut out for it.

Now, let's drill down to the issue of mobile linux. As I pointed out last month there are roughly 22 varieties of mobile linux in the market (23 or more if you count Android). If Google's ToS are really as open as they claimed during the conference today, we could soon see 1,022 varieties of mobile linux in the next two years. Maybe that's what Google wants, but if Google hopes Android will be a one-stop shop for developers, more balkanization will only add to the pain of growth, not ease it. Unless Google has some kind of app standardization technology behind the scenes of which I am not aware.

As for question number three, I don't see what will stop a carrier like Verizon Wireless from using this software to develop its own locked-down version of an Android phone. I mean if the ToS is really that flexible, why not?

Verizon or AT&T could conceivably launch their own gPhones, tap into a fast-growing global developer community, and cherry pick the apps they want to allow on their devices, and then ship them with all the restrictions they currently use on their other handsets. How would Google prevent this? Would Google have to be less than open to keep the carriers from locking down their new Google-powered phones?

What do you think? Does Android promise to further balkanize the mobile market? Or will it create a new mobile standard?

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