Google on Monday announced a widely expected open-development platform for mobile devices backed by industry heavyweights like T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm and Motorola that could shake the wireless market to its core by simplifying and reducing the cost of developing mobile applications.
The platform, called Android, has been developed by Google and others as part of the Open Handset Alliance, which has over 30 partners supporting it. The goal of this ambitious initiative is to spur innovation in the mobile space and accelerate improvements in how people use the Web via cell phones.
As previously reported by IDG News Service, the open-source platform will have a complete set of components, including an operating system, middleware stack, customizable user interface and applications.
The first Android-based phones should hit the market in the second half of 2008. The platform will be made available under an open-source license that will give a lot of flexibility to those who adopt it to modify its components and design services and products, Google said.
The alliance will release an "early access" software development kit next week to provide developers with the tools necessary to create applications for the platform, Google said.
Other founding members of the alliance include Broadcom, eBay, China Mobile, Intel, LG Electronics, NTT DoCoMo, Nvidia, Samsung, Sprint Nextel, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, Texas Instruments and Wind River.
Noticeably absent from the list is traditional Google ally Apple, whose popular iPhone might see its innovation lead cut sooner than expected thanks to this Google effort.
In a press conference Monday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Android will "create a whole new mobile experience for users with new applications and new capabilities that we couldn't imagine today."
There are about 3 billion mobile users worldwide, so improving their access to Internet services and applications fits in with Google's core mission, he said.
Making it easier for people to access Google's search engines and other online services via mobile devices is key to the company, which must extend its advertising business to the wireless world.
While a nascent market, mobile advertising is expected to balloon in coming years. According to Opus Research, mobile advertising spending in North America and Western Europe will reach a combined US$5.08 billion by 2012, up from an estimated $106.8 million at the end of this year. This represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 116 percent.
Opus Research, which released the forecast last week, said that improving the mobile user experience will prompt more people to spend more time using the Internet via their cell phones. This in turn will fuel ad revenue growth.
Calling Android "the first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices," Schmidt said Google hopes it will power "thousands" of different mobile phones, including, if one were ever to be built, a Google-branded "Gphone."
Android, which a Google spokesman said will be completely free, will be made available under the Android "Apache v2 license," which Schmidt described as "the most liberal open-source license given to mobile operators or anyone ever."
"This platform fundamentally means a new level of innovation in many ways: all kinds of new applications that have never been possible in any other mobile device and the acceleration of ways in which these applications are made available to consumers," Schdmit said.
Innovation in the mobile market has been hampered by a lack of collaboration and of technical standards, and by the high costs of development and difficulties in distribution, he said.
This has made software developers, wireless carriers and handset manufacturers less inclined to take risks in product development efforts, he said.
"But mobile users nonetheless want the same applications on their phones that they're accustomed to on the [PC-based] Internet," he said, adding that Android will make it possible for developers, operators and handset makers to bring this to consumers.
Joining Schmidt were the CEOs of T-Mobile's parent company Deutsche Telekom, HTC, Qualcomm and Motorola, all of whom supported his statements and said their respective companies had definite plans to develop Android-based products, although the executives in general didn't provide many details.
Apparently, most of the Android technology comes from a company by the same name that Google bought in 2005. One of its co-founders, Andy Rubin, now Google's director of mobile platforms, also participated in the press conference and promised much more technical details about the platform when the SDK (software developer's kit) is released next week.
Rubin acknowledged that the operating system component is based on Linux, and that the set of components includes what he and Schmidt described as a robust, full-featured mobile HTML browser, which will be key to accomplishing the goal of radically improving the mobile Internet user experience. The browser piece will also be crucial for Google to increase and improve its ability to deliver online ads to cell phones.
Asked about Apple's absence from the partner list, particularly since he is an Apple board member, Schmidt said he is also a "happy" iPhone user, but that Android's goal is to generate multiple "mobile experiences" including many that haven't yet been invented.
Still, there is now a clear indication that Apple may not see this Google effort with good eyes, as the alliance could benefit competing handset makers and carriers that don't carry the iPhone. Apple's iPhone carrier partner, AT&T, isn't supporting the Google effort either at this point.
Basically, Android could accelerate the pace at which competing handsets catch up with the iPhone's user experience innovations, and thus cut into the iPhone's attractiveness in the market.
A few weeks ago, Apple announced it will release a SDK so that third-party developers can build iPhone applications. It expects to make the SDK available in February.
The SDK will be released next week in an early version that Google hopes to improve upon and evolve as it receives feedback from developers, Rubin said.
As part of this effort, Google plans to provide hosted services that third-party developers can use to distribute their Android-based mobile applications, officials said.
Schmidt dismissed suggestions that making another mobile platform available will create more technical fragmentation because Android will be open to anyone and gives licensees the freedom to modifiy it at will.
Microsoft and Symbian are two major providers of mobile operating system platforms, so this effort by Google is a direct challenge to their respective offerings.
Google's CEO also said that the fact that Android is free and open will not preclude his company from entering into revenue-sharing agreements with carriers and handset manufacturers related to the provision of Google services and advertising on mobile devices.
More information about the Open Handset Alliance is at this Web site.