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As Google Takes On the iPhone, True Openness — and Developers — Are Key

Google’s (s Goog) Nexus One phone has a lot going for it, although it isn’t an iPhone killer just yet. In the meantime, however, questions are emerging as to whether or not Google is going to be truly open with its Android OS strategy. Yesterday, on a videocast, Chris DiBona, Google’s influential open source program manager, provided some insight into the company’s approach.

On an episode of the weekly “CrankyGeeks” videocast that I was on, we asked DiBona whether when it comes to the Nexus One, Google is maintaining a level playing field with other phone competitors, particularly regarding its Android OS strategy. (GigaOm Pro, subscription req’d.)

To clarify, the Nexus One phone runs version 2.1 of Android, and DiBona confirmed that it’s currently the only phone to do so. That fact has given rise to many reports that Motorola (s MOT), for one, is angry that the Droid phone runs the older version 2.0 of Android. We asked DiBona if the move is similar to Microsoft (s MSFT) delivering one version of Windows to HP (s HP), and another to Dell (s Dell). We also asked him whether developers really want to build applications for multiple versions of Android. He responded:

“In defense of the platform, [Android] 2.1 is going to be available to everybody. It’s going to be open-sourced as well. [The Nexus One] is the first phone shipping with 2.1. We gave Motorola a huge heads-up. Motorola has been in this business for a long time. The versions are really close. The differences between them are live wallpaper, a couple of other small features, and a couple of small apps. Those are all getting sent to the Droid.”

As to what he thinks would happen if Microsoft delivered different versions of Windows to HP and Dell, “Microsoft has a certain level of monopoly power that we don’t,” DiBona said. “We were very much the underdog in operating systems. HTC can ship Android with their Sense UI. Some Samsung phones have their own flavor of the UI. This can be a little hard on developers sometimes, and they have to adapt.”

It’s crucial that going forward Google preserves a level playing field with Android, hardware manufacturers and developers–some of whom are already miffed that there isn’t an SDK for the new version of Android. (It’s also crucial that it does so with its new web store.) My sense is that Google is mostly going to do that, but the key word is mostly. I don’t doubt that the latest and greatest versions of Android will appear on Google’s phones first — and many people in the open source community will cry foul about that — but I also clearly heard DiBona maintain that Google is very focused on developers.

He noted that Google has to have a certain number of phones out in the field to really swing a big stick with the developer community, saying, “This is going to sound really cynical, but the thing that matters is how many Android phones we ship. There is a linear relationship between the number of phones we ship and the number of developers we get. We have about a fifteenth of the penetration of the iPhone, and about a tenth of the apps.”

In asking a couple of other Nexus One-related questions of DiBona, I mentioned that the phone seems to have extremely good battery life, to which he said he thinks the Droid’s is actually longer. I also asked him about widespread criticism of the fact that Google’s phone allows only 190MB of its local storage to store apps.

He said the solution is to store apps on an SD card, but he also noted that Apple doesn’t have app-related advantages over the Nexus One in every single department. “[Apple has] an advantage in the apps department, except for apps that run in the background,” he said. “I can start Pandora on [the Nexus One] and run it in the background. I can start all the location apps, and they run in the background.”

You can watch the whole discussion on the phone here (it’s the first 5-minute segment in the videocast).

16 Responses to “As Google Takes On the iPhone, True Openness — and Developers — Are Key”

  1. Googles best chance at making the Nexus One a success is making it enticing for developers to code for it. Apple has done a great job at making their app developers rich and Google needs to do the same. Developers are going to go where the money is and right now its in the Apple app store!

  2. I fully agree with COM_by_CRAIG. Google has to make it open if they want to compete with Apple and Microsoft in the firld of smartphones. It is important for google to increase the adoption level of android operating system as this will help them in increasing their market.On the other hand they should work on the software problems their consumers are facing in android based phones.

  3. Google nexus one is the best phone to hit the market.

    I think its priced way high for huge popularity. It has its advantages to I phones, but still I phones have thousands of apps.

    Hope this phone succeeds.

    • avalokman

      I have first hand experience that suggests that this price comes with an unbelievably low level of customer service, at least in the ordering process. I placed an order for an unlocked phone this morning, to be engraved as a birthday gift to my wife. Engraved phones are to be shipped 72 hours after order. 20 minutes after I placed the order, I realized there was a a typo in the engraving. I sent an email to their customer service via Google Checkout, but that was replied with a form letter stating no changes can be done to an order once placed, and the only way to make changes is to cancel the order and place it again. But guess what – cancellations are allowed for only 15 min after you place the order. So in this case, the customer is SOL. A call to Google’s general number at 650-623-4000 gets you to a Google operator who has no authority to transfer you to anyone in Nexus One Order or support department. In other words, there is absolutely no human support for an order for a $550 item. Just unbelievable.

  4. Sweet! Another cool device on Android to develop for. Now basically anyone can develop apps for Android with the emergence of highly effective and reliable mobile development SDKs, like Titanium.

    Titanium is open source and allows the development of cross platform (iPhone and Android)applications with only the knowledge of HTML, CSS and Javascript, oh, its free also.

    Check it out:

  5. @Darwin, @Ryan, I agree that multitasking isn’t for everyone, but the specific example he cites are good ones. Running Rhapsody in the background, and location apps….I think like that will pick up as people become accustomed to it.


  6. I don’t know why he would say to store apps on an SD Card when they won’t run from an SD card. This is a huge issue.

    You should have asked him why Android is jerky and slow even with a 1ghz proc. Or why there is no multi-touch. Or why voice quality on the Nexus is so bad even with noise canceling. Or why the onscreen keyboard is so awful, why it does not have the same level of location based services as the iPhone, when they are going to provide decent multimedia playback and sync, why the Android store is so awful, how they expect anyone writing apps to make money, etc, etc. it is alkos not true that the iPhone has no background apps. if background apps are so great than why is the most used utility software for Android astask killer? People need this to get decent battery life on Android because of multi-tasking.

    • COM_by_CRAIG

      Mr. Jobs you do make some good points but even you can understand why you cannot store apps on a SD card. There would be no more developers if they did this. You could easily pop the SD card out and put it in another device. Even it is protected or encrypted someone will figure out how to hack it. Come on you should know this! Maybe it would be more proper to criticize the amount of internal memory available.

      Did you actually use the phone? I think your employees are lying to you: CNet reports “Call quality was quite good on the whole. Conversations were clear, the volume was loud, and we heard little static or interference.” Also about performance: “Applications loaded in a flash and there was no lag when switching between features.”

      Mr. Jobs don’t worry your iPhone is great. I use one everyday. The Nexus is not an iPhone killer, actually I’m not sure if one will be. Collectively, yeah maybe.

      BTW: I’m looking for a job. Oh yeah, ANDROID IS CRAP!

  7. The background apps issue is a nice talking point, but I doubt it matters to most people. Most people (including my wife) use their phones in a linear fashion. Using my wife as an example, if she is playing a game, she isn’t browsing the web, or looking up contacts. While there are certainly a few key use-cases that call for running multiple apps (call and web browsing), they have been accounted for with bundled functionality, or notifications support.

    • Roshan Shrestha

      Maybe not for a majority of application, but sometimes multitasking of third party app is useful. For example, to use the Dragon Naturally Speaking app, where you speak and it transcribes, you have to copy and paste the text to another application (such as email), since the dragon app is unable to run when other applications are running.

  8. @ com_by_craig, you hit the nail right on the head. As far as its own interests go, Google is best served by keeping its Android strategy totally open to get the maximum level of adoption and feed the maximum # of users into its search/ad ecosystem. This is especially true while its own phones remain a minor part of the business.


    • Android is not “open” by any stretch of the imagination and Google doesn’t want or need it to be no matter what they may say.

      Google tries to make much of the fact that it is ideologically open, despite the fact that this doesn’t necessarily benefit customers, and isn’t necessarily any more the case for Android phones than for the iPhone or any other smartphone model. Apple also uses open source code in its core OS and within Safari. At the same time, Android phones “with Google” and Android Market apps are similarly closed off by security partitions and restrictions.
      Outside of supplying the hot air that inflates’s tech media wags’ opinion pieces regarding Android’s vaunted openness, the idea that an Android phone is any more “open” than the iPhone in any measurable way relevant to consumers simply has no real meaning, certainly no more than pleadings by GM to “buy American.”

  9. COM_by_CRAIG

    It would be idiotic for Google to not keep it open. The main thing is Google is and always be a search company first. Google sees a whole new flock of users that could be using Google search on their phone. They give deals to the carriers for free advertising if they enable Google search on their phones. It’s pennies right for them right now but I have read that estimates that search ad revenue for mobile devices could reach $3 billion by 2013.

  10. Om and team – Of late, I have noticed an overkill of Google-related stories on GigaOm. Each by itself may be newsworthy but the behemoth already gets plenty of coverage from mainstream media outlets. I always liked that your team has, in the past, profiled smaller companies and their innovative/unusual technologies. I hope you can restore this balance in the near future.

      • timjones17

        Om and team – Of late, I have noticed more balance on smartphone-related stories on GigaOm. Noticeably less iPhone fawning articles, and more coverage of other platforms. Apple, blindingly loved by mainstream bloggers already gets plenty of coverage from them. I was always disturbed that your team has, in the past, unquestionably profiled Apple in always so glowing light. I’m glad that you are now moving towards more balance.