Google is not getting into the handset business, but has announced that it was working on a Linux-based software platform for smartphones that promises to spur better mobile internet access, and the creation of new devices and applications.
Dubbed Android, Google's platform will include an operating system, middleware, a user interface and applications. A software developer kit is slated for release next week, and the first phones running Android are expected to hit retail shelves sometime during the second half of next year, Google executives said yesterday.
Google has enlisted 34 wireless heavyweights to develop applications on the Android platform by creating a global developer group it calls the Open Handset Alliance. Motorola, HTC and Samsung are among the handset makers that have joined. The second and third largest wireless carriers in the US, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel, are members, as is Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo. Chipmakers Intel, Broadcom and Qualcomm are also on board.
Android is basically an opportunity to make better smartphones, according to Google's engineering director Steve Horowitz in a company video presentation. "There's no such thing as a gPhone," he said. "What we're doing is enabling an entire industry to create thousands of gPhones."
Google chief executive Eric Schmidt declined to say, on a conference call, whether Google plans to release its own mobile hardware at some future point.
The Android platform would compete with platforms on various devices, including Apple's iPhone, Research in Motion's BlackBerry, Palm's Treo and various smartphones from Nokia, the world's largest handset maker.
Nokia spokesperson Keith Nowak declined to say whether or not Nokia had been invited to Google's Open Handset Alliance. "Every time we've seen another player get into the market it's simply raised awareness," Nowak said of Google's plans, in an interview.
Based on what Google has announced so far about Android, Google doesn't appear to be offering or enabling anything different from what Nokia offers today, Nowak said. "Maybe a somewhat different model," he said. Nokia has not announced plans that it plans to launch Linux-based cell phones, but it is doing open-source internet tablet devices, Nowak noted.
Symbian, the leading mobile OS company that Nokia owns 48% of, already offers openness to application developers, Nowak said.
Paul Jarratt, Symbian's North America marcom manager, said Symbian had also been opening up some of its application programming interfaces to the developer community to try to make it easier for developers to create new Symbian OS programs.
He said Android sounds as though it would basically be similar to what Symbian offers, but it's too early to tell just how competitive Google's platform will be. "Let's see how they handle security, let's see how they handle SDKs," he said in an interview.
Google's foray into mobile software would reinvigorate the smartphone market but that Google would have its work cut out for it, Jarratt said. "At the same tie we shouldn't sit back and be complacent," he said. "Obviously, Google's someone that we shouldn't be underestimating by any stretch of the imagination."
However, the Linux mobile market is currently fragmented, with about 24 different Linux operating systems on the market, according to Jarratt.
"Which version of Linux do you create an application for? At least with Symbian you can create an application and porting it from one UI to another is relatively easy," he said. "With Linux it's difficult to know who's the controlling body and where do you get your SDKs?"
Thomas Kelly, chief executive of the leading mobile Linux OS developer Montavista, told Computer Business Review that Google, through its Open Handset Alliance, would bring power, structure and additional leadership to the mobile Linux community, and significantly spur the adoption of Linux-based cell phones.
"This is really creating a true competitive environment in the marketplace to the propriety platforms," Kelly said (read more in a Q&A with Kelly in tomorrow's ComputerGram).
Google would aggressively seed the mobile space, in order to push its search-advertising business beyond the PC, said Chris Ambrosio, a director at Strategy Analytics. "Microsoft, RIM and Symbian may struggle to match the global brand appeal and huge resources that Google is likely to commit to this latest effort,"