Google's mobile move: awe-inspiring and terrifying

Many questions remain unanswered about this latest foray, and the accomplishment of its grand vision is far from assured, but Google could effect significant change in how wireless carriers, handset makers and mobile application developers do business.

"What makes it real and powerful is the credibility of all these partners they have gathered," Sterling said. "It means that this has got buy-in in a very powerful way from the get-go."

Google's Open Handset Alliance is launching with 33 partners on board, including T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm, Motorola, Broadcom, eBay, China Mobile, Intel, LG Electronics, NTT DoCoMo, Nvidia, Samsung, Sprint Nextel, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, Texas Instruments and Wind River.

Of course, victory is far from secure.

For starters, not everyone is on board. Apple, Nokia, AT&T and Verizon are noticeably absent from the partners' list. Also, while the vision looks shiny at a conceptual level, many technical details remain undisclosed.

"We have a bit of a wait and see until we see what the platform will look like next week," said Van Baker, a Garner analyst. "We're operating in the dark. We're hearing lots of good intentions but it remains to be seen what they will actually deliver."

Google promises more details will be provided next week when it releases the Android software development kit, which will be free to use under the Apache V2 license.

Baker is particularly interested in the browser component of Android, which Google officials Monday described as full-featured and based on HTML, thus able to replicate a PC experience on a mobile phone.

That is a big claim, and if that browser in fact functions in that manner, Android's effect on the market will likely be significant, as the only thing that would approach this claim in the market today is the iPhone's Safari, Baker said.

"I confess to being skeptical [about the browser description] but if they can deliver on that, it could be very compelling," Baker said.

Another potential pitfall is the freedom of the open-source license, which gives developers, handset makers and carriers a lot of leeway to add proprietary extensions and modifications, which could result in an aggravation of the problem that Google is trying to solve: technical fragmentation.

"This could lead to further fragmentation in the market because the license allows any licensee to use whatever pieces [of the platform] they want and ignore whatever pieces or parts they want," Baker said.

Whether Android will have its desired effect will become clear once phones and applications built on it start appearing in the second half of 2008. At the time, cell phone subscribers will cast the most important votes in this contest.

Certainly, the lack of support at this point from AT&T and Verizon is notable, if not surprising, Baker said. Big carriers like Verizon and AT&T are comfortable with the significant control they exert currently over the applications and services available to their subscribers.

"This could loosen that [grip] up a bit," Baker said.

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