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gPhone: a software erector set
By: Scott Bradner
After a frenzied buildup Google did not announce the gPhone. Instead Google announced that there might be a gPhone in your future. The announcement was heavy on future potential and light on current reality. The basic announcement was quite simple: Google announced that a new "Open Handset Alliance" has been formed to create open source, Linux-based software for mobile phones and other mobile devices. With Google's clout this effort may fare better than previous efforts along the same line but we will not know for a while yet.
Anyone caught up in the preannouncement hype had to have been disappointed in what came out. The list of 34 current members of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) (http://www.openhandsetalliance.com) include some impressive names, including a few real mobile phone carriers and handset manufactures. But, as the Register pointed out, this is not the first announcement of a group aiming to create software for Linux-based mobile phones. (See LiMo arrives for mobile Linux http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/01/26/limo_founded/ and RM finds friends for mobile Linux http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/10/04/arm_linux/.) We should know more next week when the Alliance plans to post an "early look" at a software development kit. But even if everything works out like Google has publicly predicted this is still not a phone, it is at best a set of software pieces that can be assembled to be come the base that a phone manufacturer can build upon. It is a totally flexible platform with no restrictions on how dumb or smart the phone manufacturer wants to make the resulting phone.
Clearly the Google announcement must be viewed in comparison to the iPhone. Google got almost as much hype as Apple did and, like Apple, is a company that is not part of the traditional phone world. Both the iPhone and the OHA are not aiming at the simple end of the mobile phone business - they are both targeting the relatively small "smartphone" segment of that business. Given its iPod track record, Apple may produce products that compete in other parts of the mobile phone biz in the future but it's not clear what the OHA is thinking in this area.
Time Magazine tagged the iPhone as the Invention of the Year. (http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1677329_1678542,00.html) They said they did so for 5 reasons: the iPhone is pretty, it's touchy-feely, it will make other phones better, it's not a phone, it's a platform, and it is but the ghost of iPhones yet to come.
The OHA software by itself cannot be said to meet all of these goals. It's up to the phone manufacturer to make a phone using the OHA software pretty or touchy-feely. It can be done, but it's unlikely that most manufacturers are going to be able to get close to the iPhone in these areas. The OHA may be able to make other phones better by providing a solid platform for innovation that many, if the phone manufacturers can understand the concept, produce better phones far into the future. Three out of five is not too bad. (But, phone manufacturers take note, Apple will not be sleeping.)
One area that has not yet been explored in the OHA is the issue of patents. There are dozens of patents that cover just about all aspects of mobile phones. There is no reason to think that, just because a phone runs Linux and other open source software, that any of the patent issues will go away.
My verdict: Google orchestrated a big splash but it remains to be seen if the resulting ripples will rock many boats a year from now when products are supposed to be out.
disclaimer: While Harvard has been in the boat rocking business for a very long time, the university has not expressed an opinion on the viability of open source operating systems for mobile phones (in case you thought you missed it). Thus, the above represents my own doubts.