Has Google Swiped Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field?

goog.jpgIt was widely expected that Google would make an announcement about the Gphone today, and it did, to some extent. It announced that it’s not making a single Gphone, but rather a software platform called Android — which isn’t a great surprise, considering Google’s 2005 acquisition of a company of the same name, a company founded by Andy Rubin, one of the founders of Danger. It also announced the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of operators, handset vendors, component makers and software companies that have aligned behind the Android platform.

There aren’t many details about Android beyond an “Introducing Android” YouTube vid. Google says the first Android phones won’t ship until the second half of 2008, but it will release an SDK next week, which should provide some more details on Android’s functionality and features. Google adds that it remains committed to delivering its mobile services for a range of platforms, not just Android, because “We recognize that many among the multitude of mobile users around the world do not and may never have an Android-based phone.”

So what’s really going on here? If anything, it looks like Google’s borrowed Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field. All of this is a PR and media manipulation masterstroke. Obviously since they’ve created the “Open Handset Alliance”, other handsets that don’t come out of it must be closed, right? It’s a story the press is running with, anyway — check out this pre-announcement WSJ story called “What Will Google Mean to Phones?”. A person with no outside knowledge of the mobile industry would read that and think that it’s essentially impossible to access anything other than carrier-approved services or install third-party applications on phones. That, of course, is far from true, and it remains to be seen what Android will do that will offer any improvements over existing smartphone OS like Symbian and Windows Mobile, or even over good ol’ Java.

It would appear that Google’s trying to imply that anything written for Android will run on any Android device — but those of us who have been around a little while will remember how many times that’s been promised in the mobile world, only for different vendors’ implementations of various technologies to break the “write once, run anywhere” promise. One big question for Android is how it will avoid this.

Looking at the list of OHA members further reinforces my previous assertion that handset vendors and operators are primarily interested in working with Google in this space because of its brand. For instance, the handset vendors’ (HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung) motivation seems pretty clear: boost their profile and sales by an association with Google. All of those vendors have plenty of “open” platforms they use already, and it seems unlikely that they’ll drop them all and shift to Android. The list of operators doesn’t include any with ties to the iPhone, with the exception of T-Mobile (though it’s not clear if its support includes only its US unit, or all of its units worldwide). Google talks about how handsets have always been locked to the desires of device makers and operators. What would cause such a dramatic turnaround, for them to all suddenly embrace “openness”? Nothing, really — they just want to sell more phones and get more users, and they think the Google brand will help them do that.

But everybody loves open, right? It’s the buzzword du jour, but it’s one that’s used to mean so many things, it’s meaningless. Is what Google’s doing any more open than other platforms? Perhaps in some sense it will be, but it seems like all it’s really doing is replacing a platform built to serve one party’s interests (whether it’s the handset vendor or operator) with a platform built to serve a different party’s interests (ie Google). This isn’t to say that Google won’t be successful — the powerful combination of their strong brand and free software should make these mobile efforts succeed easily.

But what all of this adds up to for other players in the industry is a tremendous opportunity. In the same way that Apple raised the profile of the mobile internet by an order of magnitude with the launch of the iPhone, Google’s doing much the same for open mobile platforms. Nokia responded to the iPhone by launching an ad campaign stressing the “open” nature of its N-series devices, so look for things like that to increase. Perhaps the biggest struggle in marketing many mobile services is creating some initial awareness or curiosity among consumers; both the iPhone and now, the Gphone, are bringing issues like “openness”, third-party apps and services and the mobile internet clearly into the public view. Smart companies will jump on this, and take advantage of the opportunity to explain to people and the media that they’re already delivering much of what these new developments promise, today.

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