After months of speculation, Google this week unveiled its long-awaited "GPhone." But it wasn't a phone, it was something potentially far more powerful: a sweeping alliance of cellphone makers, carriers, and programmers that have committed to developing a new generation of mobile devices and perhaps a new philosophy for the wireless world.
The announcement was about Android, a new, Google-led operating system for cellphones. It will be free and open-source, meaning that anyone will be able to use the underlying software to create programs that can run on millions of mobile devices around the globe. If the idea takes off – and that is still a big if – Android could represent an unprecedented fusing of the creativity that has made the Internet useful and fun with the ubiquity of mobile phones.
"This Google proposal can do to cellphones what the Internet did for the personal computer," says David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "The Internet created a new public space, and the opening up of cellphones will do the same thing, but extend that space beyond the time that we spend tapping at a keyboard."
This new era of mobile creativity flows from the idea that Android will let anyone anywhere write programs and share them with the world. So cellphone innovation could come from a developer in her office or a teen in his bedroom. And the next Internet blockbuster business could be sparked by a mobile-phone application.
That's if things go according to plan. Many have tried and failed to crack today's closed mobile marketplace, where carriers create and guard software that often runs only on their cellphones. Many analysts doubt that even Google, as big as it is, can succeed.
Even Apple's iPhone, which allows users to freely surf the Web, won't download any new applications. What comes with the phone is all you get. Apple says it will open up its iPhone to third-party applications in February, but has not specified how restrictive the development process will be.
Other companies, such as Nokia, have fostered large programming communities, especially outside of the US. "But then you have to worry about whether the program you wrote for one phone will work on another phone, even within the same carrier network," says Chetan Sharma, head of his own wireless consultancy in Issaquah, Wash. "Often, developers will have to rewrite the code 50, 200, 300 times for the hundreds of different handsets on the market."
Android hopes to quash these worries. In theory, each phone that runs off Google's software will speak the same language. Just as consumers don't have to worry if their Windows-compatible software will run on both Dell and HP computers, Google plans for Android software to run on any phone that adopts the system.
Google will release the actual code next week, but doesn't expect any handsets to utilize it until the second half of 2008. Until more details come out, many developers are cautious.
"The whole idea of branching out to the mobile platform and reaching a mobile audience is new and exciting," says Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media, a New York developer of applications for Internet platforms, such as the MySpace and Facebook social networks. "We're interested in building applications over every social network that could make us money. If mobile phones offer that, then we'll be there, but it's too early to tell."
So far, Facebook is the only social-network platform that Mr. Lazerow says has opened up its operating software to allow anyone to make money off Facebook programs that they develop. Today, there are 7,700 Facebook applications.
These thousands of mini-programs range from the handy and useful to the silly and pointless. But sometimes, even innovations designed to be frivolous turn into important new tools. Twitter – the social website that asks users to constantly post what they're doing right now in 140 characters or less – became a key source for decimating emergency information during the southern California wildfires last month.
Before the unveiling of Android, translating Facebook's model to the mobile market place seemed impossible. The big networks would balk; smaller carriers never had enough users to attract many outside professional developers.
"The telcos have fought any opening up of their walled garden because it goes against their survival instinct," says Craig Settles, an industry consultant in Oakland, Calif. "But Google has the muscle to make this work."
The coalition that Google has brought to the table, called the Open Handset Alliance, is an impressive global lineup, most analysts agree.
"This whole move by Google will have a significant impact on mobile users but not for some time," says Charles Golvin, a principal analyst for Forrester Research based in Cambridge, Mass. One big change will be in the way people perceive their cellphones, he says. Just as the iPhone showed a wider audience that full Web capability was possible in a phone, the coming Android devices could spark greater adoption of Internet-ready handsets.