The gPhone: Google's Software Erector Set
After a frenzied build-up, Google, as you probably know by now, did not announce the gPhone. Instead, the company announced 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 the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) 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.
Anyone caught up in the pre-announcement hype had to have been disappointed in what came out. The list of 34 current members of the OHA features some impressive names, including a few real mobile-phone carriers and handset manufacturers. As The Register pointed out, however, this is not the first announcement of a group aiming to create software for Linux-based mobile phones (see "LiMo arrives for mobile Linux" and "ARM finds friends for mobile Linux"). We should know more next week when the alliance plans to post an "early look" at a software development kit. Even if everything works out as Google has predicted publicly, this still is not a phone, it is at best a set of software pieces that can be assembled to become the base a phone-maker can build on. 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. The iPhone and the OHA are not aiming at the simple end of the mobile phone business -- they are targeting the relatively small smart-phone 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 the Invention of the Year. Its editors said they did so for five reasons: The iPhone is pretty; it's touchy-feely; it will make other phones better; it's not a phone, it's a platform; 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 manufacturers to make devices 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 may -- if the phone manufacturers can understand the concept -- produce better phones far into the future. Three out of five is not too bad. (Phone manufacturers, take note: Apple will not be sleeping.)
One area that has not been explored yet 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 these 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.