Monday, November 19, 2007

Mobile Internet doesn't need Google to succeed

Wow, November 19 and I still haven't posted for the month! Here's the first of a few to come, this one my take on Google's Android open source for mobiles project . . .

We’re entering an interesting time for the mobile Internet sector and I think there are enough encouraging announcements happening that will see it develop into something much more useable in 2008.

As I suggested a few months back, perhaps one of the lasting legacies of Apple’s iPhone is that it will push other players in the market to keep up with its innovation. We’re already seeing that – whether it’s a consequence of Apple or not – with much improved technology coming from all of the major players, whether its Windows Mobile, the Nokia/Symbian camp, RIM and its Blackberry, Apple itself and of course one of the most keenly-waited announcements of all – Google and its open mobile alliance.

Just a small sampling of the announcements that have been encouraging over the last month include Microsoft and Nokia getting together to pre-load Windows Live services on mobiles (not an exclusive deal, by the way), Nokia finally announcing its roadmap for touch-screen phones and a touch-screen user interface built into its Series 60 software, RIM adding new touches such as Facebook support for the Blackberry, and Apple relenting and allowing third-party apps for the iPhone (although only those that it pre-approves).

But the biggest announcement was no doubt from Google last week with its “Android” and the Open Handset Alliance, which features an impressive line-up of founding members. Rather than list who they are, it’s more instructive to list who’s not there: Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM and Sony Ericsson. All powerful players, but then again the likes of China Mobile, Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, T-mobile and Telecom Italia among the 34 founders of the Open Handset Alliance are not bad allies either (not to mention the mighty Google itself).

According to the Google announcement, the Android platform is (or will be) a fully integrated mobile “software stack” that consists of an operating system, middleware, user-friendly interface and applications, with the first phones based on Android to be available in the second half of 2008.

It said the platform will be made available “under one of the most progressive, developer-friendly open-source licenses, which gives mobile operators and device manufacturers significant freedom and flexibility to design products.” As its first move, the alliance will this week release an early access software development kit to provide developers with the tools necessary to create applications.

It certainly sounds like the real deal, but there are some things worth pointing out. For one thing, late 2008 is still a long way out when we’re talking technology and a lot of new innovations from the rest of the mobile industry will have happened by then. And as a number of people have mentioned that I’ve spoken to recently, bringing out a mobile operating system is no easy feat. Just think how long it took Microsoft to get Windows Mobile relatively stable and established, and even Nokia with Symbian and Series 60 has had more than a few hiccups along the way.

Open source mobile phones are not new, either. Efforts to get Linux on phones have been in the works for a few years now, but there’s nothing serious that has eventuated other than a low-level operating system that is really not that compelling. And those efforts and alliances involving the likes of Motorola still exist.

Another significant mobile device operating system, which is also open and with a massive developer community, is the PalmOS. There are literally thousands of mobile applications for the PalmOS yet it continues to struggle.

Given that it will not appear before the second half of next year, Android is not likely to have much effect in 2008 at all. But in the meantime I expect that the mobile Internet will become a lot more user-friendly. For example, one of the new services I’m trying out now, the Widset platform for bringing widgets, or small applications, to a mobile phone really does improve the user experience when it comes to accessing Internet on the phone. So too do things such as the mobile version of Gmail, which I’ve now downloaded on my mobile.

So perhaps the underlying operating system is not that much of an issue anyway – the real groundbreaking developments are those that are happening on the Internet. And I expect that they will have moved ahead rapidly by the time Android makes its debut. – Geoff Long

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