What Google's Mobile OS Will Do for Your Next Cell Phone

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No Google phone exists yet, but the search giant's announcement of an open platform for mobile-phone apps is a step in the right direction. So when will we see the so-called Android phones from members of the newly founded Open Handset Alliance? We'll dig into those and more of the key questions surrounding Google's phone platform in this FAQ. Be sure to check back for updates as the story evolves. (Last updated: 11/07/2007 at 8:20 a.m.)

Will a Google Phone ever be made?

Google's chair and CEO Eric Schmidt won't officially say. But Schmidt does say that if all goes as planned, we'll likely see many "Google phones" from a variety of wireless carriers. He also says that once software developers create a mature Android OS, it would be a prime time for Google to release a gPhone.

What has been announced so far?

The release of the Android platform and the launch of the Open Handset Alliance were the two most substantive news items to come out of Monday's press conference.

So what is this Android?

Android is a Linux-based mobile software platform that Google hopes will be the operating system of mobile phones in the future. It will compete with platforms such as Apple's OS X on the iPhone, the BlackBerry OS, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, and the Palm OS.

Google announced the Android platform along with other members of the Open Handset Alliance, a group of 34 hardware and software companies plus wireless carriers committed to creating open standards for mobile devices.

The Android platform, according to OHA, is free software available under the Apache open-source license. On November 12, a software developer's kit (SDK) will release to developers. This will be the first chance for people to see an early incarnation of the OS.

When will I be able to buy a Google-powered phone?

The first Android phones are expected to be available to consumers in the second half of 2008. The most likely candidates to release Google-powered phones here in the United States are the wireless carriers--Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile--that are part of OHA.

HTC and Motorola, both members of OHA, will build phones for the Android platform. Forbes is reporting on an HTC-built OHA reference design code-named Dream featuring a touch screen that swivels to reveal a full keyboard. Apparently HTC is considering a commercial version of the phone and could release such a device as soon as the second half of 2008.

Will other carriers such as Verizon offer Android-based phones?

Don't hold your breath for Verizon and AT&T to jump on the Android bandwagon. These carriers say they are worried that the open-software standards could expose users to software attacks or security breaches.

Beyond the security issues, wireless carriers have financial considerations, too. A cell phone that allowed customers to use any mobile Web application for free could threaten the revenue of carriers that charge customers for identical applications, such as access to e-mail, games, and GPS features.

How will Android phones differ from today's coolest smart phones?

Google says Android will have a browser capable of handling any type of Web content that a desktop computer's Web browser can handle. That design opens up a treasure trove of possible browser-based services already available to PC users, including contact management, document creation, GPS direction services, and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services.

Many of these services could be implemented today but aren't, largely due to the fact that wireless carriers currently offer basic browsers that restrict users to a walled garden of services.

Why is a Google mobile platform any better than an existing mobile OS from Palm or Microsoft?

In theory, software developers will be inspired to create mobile applications for Android, for two reasons. First, an open software architecture will allow software developers more flexibility in creating features.

Second, Android will break the stranglehold that wireless carriers have on bringing new and free applications to customers. Now smaller companies will have more of an incentive to build innovative mobile applications that otherwise might not have reached consumers because the companies lacked the clout to broker deals with wireless carriers.

Will service providers be able to lock down phones?

According to the Android open license agreement, anyone can modify the OS to suit their needs--including locking it down. Conceivably a carrier could place restrictions on applications, such as VoIP services that took advantage of a mobile phone's Wi-Fi capabilities. Being able to receive and initiate calls over VoIP for free on a handset could significantly impact a wireless carrier's monthly revenue.

While Google CEO Schmidt acknowledges that locking is possible, however, he said today that it would be "unlikely" for a carrier to actually do so.

But with this "open platform" behind the phone, I'll be able to hack it and customize it anyway, right?

You've seen what has happened with the iPhone, right? With an open platform driving all Android phones, hackers should whip up something for any locked-down Android device even more easily. We'd bet that any sufficiently popular locked phones won't remain that way for long.

What will I be able to customize on an Android phone?

The Open Handset Alliance platform allows for customization down to the screen you see when you open or turn on your phone. Imagine being able to customize your opening screen with personalized icons, news feeds, weather details, and voice-mail information. Think of a My Yahoo start page for your cell phone. Again, the amount of customization will depend on the carrier.

What kinds of applications will we see?

Some companies have expressed an intent to develop location-aware services that, for instance, automatically link users to reviews of nearby restaurants. Other services might include a photo application that matches pictures automatically with people you select from your address book. Other applications could include a more robust offering of online real-time multiplayer games.

At Monday's press conference, Google director of mobile platforms Andy Rubin promised the world when it came to applications, stressing that mobile programs would be on a par with apps that people know from the PC-based Web.

Will added customization mean lots of hardware spec confusion when you buy a "Google" phone?

Yes, but it won't be anymore complicated than buying a cell phone today. Greg Sterling of Opus Research in San Francisco says with as many handsets expected to run the Android software there are bound to be low and high-end phones.

Sterling says that because Android devices rely on third party mobile services and software for advanced features, low-end phones likely will not be able to take advantage of the most resource demanding applications, such as HD video playback. "This doesn't differ a whole lot from what we have today," Sterling says.

Will I need to know how much RAM, storage, and processing power my phone has?

One of the key features of the open handsets that run Google's operating system is their ability to run applications and services from third-party providers. Just as you can't run the most system-demanding games on a low-end PC, you won't be able to run system-taxing mobile applications on low-end Android phones.

OHA members say the goal is to maximize handset functionality while keeping system specs as low as possible. However, given that mobile phones are morphing quickly into portable multi-media devices it's hard to imagine handsets that don't ship with varying quality displays and storage capacity, for example. 

Should I trust an Android phone?

The Google phones are based on an open operating system, meaning anyone can create software for it. Anyone includes hackers or people with malicious intent who can easily study the OS and create security threats - Trojans, worms, and viruses.

But some like Charles Golvin, a wireless analyst at the consultant firm Forrester Research, argue open source software can actually be much less a security risk than closed operating systems like Microsoft Windows. He says the collaborative nature of open software translates into more eyes looking for problems and more hands to fix problems when they are identified.

Golvin expects security to be the centerpiece to the Google devices. Companies will need to adapt their policies to deal with the new phones' security and privacy implications, Golvin says.

Will Google phones only be cheap because they're inundated with ads?

No. Google says that it doesn't believe carriers will subsidize the initial cost or monthly service charges of the phone with advertising. However, over time Google believes this may change. How long we'll have to wait is anyone's guess.

It's no secret Google is entering into the mobile phone space to sell ads. But in Monday's press conference Google said it had no intention of pushing ads on mobile users any harder than it already does with its Mobile AdSense program. Why?

Golvin from Forrester points out that mobile phone users are not accustomed to seeing ads on their devices. Google knows this, Golvin says, and won't risk irritating customers with a mobile ad blitz for cell phones.

Google says a cut of the revenue from ads shown on Android handsets will be shared with the wireless carrier. Over time as mobile users become desensitized and mobile ads proliferate wireless carriers will likely reduce monthly fees, Golvin says.

What does this have to do with Google's battle for wireless spectrum?

According to Google's Eric Schmidt, they're two different initiatives. Android will run well on phones built for any networks.

Google is willing to spend $4.6 billion on an upcoming Federal Communications Commission 700MHz spectrum auction. The spectrum is prime wireless real estate for wireless carriers and Google who see it as a perfect opportunity to extend mobile broadband services nationwide.

Analysts says this fits into Google's mobile strategy of extending its reach to mobile phone and beyond. "If Google won the auction it gives them an open road to offer whatever kind of services Google wants," Forrester's Golvin says. It's likely Google would lease the spectrum, if it owned it, to a wireless carrier on the conditions it place no restrictions on Google phones and devices.

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