Written by Thomas Howe, co-founder and CEO of The Thomas Howe Company, winners of the 2007 O’Reilly Emerging Communications Mashup Competition. His blog is about voice mashups and communication-enhanced business processes.
Far from being science experiments, open-source projects are powerful forces in both technology and business, especially when they are commercially supported and community-backed. Android is the Open
Handset Alliance’s open and free mobile platform, backed by Google and 30 other technology and mobile companies, and for good reason will be a major player in the mobile world for some time to come.
Open-source efforts have many fundamental advantages. Over time, they produce higher-quality code than proprietary efforts, and they reduce the costs of development. They also speed up schedules, lower the barriers to entry for many service providers and vendors, and level the playing field for all. The mobile world needs an open-source platform in which it can invest, and not only is it here, but it’s backed by the best.
So given all this, what’s not to like?
As Dr. Phil would say, even the thinnest pancake still has two sides. Even though Android will be important for technical reasons — and these may have secondary effects in the marketplace — whether or not Android will really solve the problems that currently beset mobile carriers is up for debate. Will Android provide mobile application developers with a revenue-sharing model that carriers will support? Unlikely. Will Android’s open software usher in a world in which carriers tear down their walled gardens? No, probably not.
Even though many developers and enterprise IT shops will profit from Android, many others won’t have such a positive experience. From where I sit, here’s my list of unfortunates who find themselves on the frying-pan side of the Android pancake:
1. The 110 million U.S. mobile subscribers that currently have contracts with AT&T and Verizon. AT&T and Verizon are not currently members of the Open Handset Alliance, nor are numerous other large wireless
2. Nokia, Microsoft, Palm, RIMM and Qualcomm, who now have to fight against yet another smart phone OS, further fracturing the market. It’s difficult to see the benefit of OS proliferation to anyone, especially to consumers and carriers. It’s possible that Android becomes the platform of choice, but I seem to remember hearing the same story about Linux.
3. Android developers, who don’t have a single handset on which to deploy their applications, and will have to debug the application on each new handset as it comes out. Fellow blogger Alec Saunders tells me that his recent engineering study identified over 30 realistic combinations of handset, OS and carrier for the North American market alone. Perhaps a side benefit of Android to the larger economy is a future increase in the homologation workforce, and probably just in time to catch all those ISDN dialect jocks. (This might be a good time to remind ourselves that the customer experience successes of Apple can be directly tied to the fact that they don’t have to contend with
variations in hardware or platform.)
4. The support departments of Sprint and T-Mobile, who will get calls from customers when some unauthorized program doesn’t work. See previous point. I wonder if the practical nature of Android development might in some way parallel PBX development, where even though the basic problem is quite simple, the practical realities of 400 features, or in this case 30 handsets from numerous carriers, bars very small companies from success.
5. Everybody else in the world, because the problem in mobile application innovation is not a dearth of compelling mobile applications. The problem is that people don’t know these great applications exist, and it’s hard to see how an open mobile framework solves this problem. Even if it did, most mobile applications face another barrier: they force the user to change their habits. Unfortunately, the proliferation of user interfaces and frameworks exacerbates this problem, and yet another framework like Android is not the solution.