Google's Phone Platform: It's Not an OS, So What Is It?

A few hours after Google's dramatic announcement which some sources had still been anticipating as a mobile phone bearing the Google brand, we actually know less about Android than we did -- or thought we did -- at 11:00 this morning when it was announced. During a midday press conference featuring key Google executives including CEO Eric Schmidt, reporters called into question most of the principal facts surrounding the new Open Handset Alliance - most importantly, the ingredients of the Android platform.

"One of the key differences in what we're developing is the reality of it," responded Google's Director of Mobile Platforms, Andy Rubin, to a question Om Malik asked about how handset manufacturers who joined the Alliance will be expected to distinguish their Android-based products from one another. "Within one week's time, this software will be in the hands of developers, and developers will be able to create applications, and those applications will be able to be included in handsets that are available in the second half of 2008."

But "software" meaning what, specifically? Four of the key concerns reporters seized upon this afternoon were:

  1. What is the Linux distribution included with Android, and will there actually be a preferred or even included Linux, as this morning's statements indicated?
  2. What is the nature of the Web browser technology included with Android, and is Google using someone else's browser or is it developing one of its own?
  3. Just how "open" is the shared nature of the license to users? Specifically, will cell phone users have access to the source code of the third-party apps they choose to use? Can they choose or modify their own apps, and distribute the modifications?
  4. Where are the ads? You know, the part where Google typically rakes in all the cash.

All these are questions posed in one form or another, in many cases multiple times, either without a clear answer being given or with seemingly contradictory answers given at different points. What Schmidt, Rubin, and their Google colleagues did make clear today - if nothing else - was that there may or may not ever be a Gphone. They often went out of their way to point out the Gphone rumors that have characterized the past few weeks, by way of saying there's no such thing and that the company is not ready to say there will never be such a thing.

"The good news is, we're not pre-announcing anything," responded Rubin at one point to a question from the Financial Times. "What we are focusing on is the fact that this platform is the perfect platform; if you were to build a Gphone, you would build it out of this platform. What's nice about it that, since the platform is so open and so extensible and it has so many of the capabilities that you need to build a phone, or any kind of mobile device, we think there will be many, many different types of mobile devices, very different from things that we've seen today, because of the innovation."

"When you free something into the open, it's really up to the industry to do something with it. There aren't any restrictions, so the industry can decide what to do, and how to enable it in their product."

Andy Rubin, Director of Mobile Platforms, Google

But just what are those capabilities? In response to a direct question regarding the identity of the Linux distribution selected for the platform's core, Google's Andy Rubin not only deflected the response until a further announcement next Monday, but described it in the meantime using terms that opened speculation about whether a Linux is being distributed with Android at all.

"Within one week, we're going to make further announcements about the technical specifications of the platform," Rubin said, "when it becomes available as an SDK."

When a BBC reporter asked hardware manufacturers on the call who had joined the Alliance to say whether they intend to pull back on their support of existing mobile operating systems, their responses suggested that don't perceive Android as an OS per se, but instead as a platform that centers around Linux but leaves the brand option open.

Motorola CEO Ed Zander made that point fairly clear: "As you know, we've been probably the most vocal in developing on open platforms with our Linux efforts, and this really is an accelerator to what we're doing. So we think this is fairly complementary to our core strategy about open source and open platforms...We do have some commitments to some of our carrier partners and other vendors about different product sets, and we'll continue with those lines; but at the core of what we're doing, we've been working a lot on this kind of strategy for some time."

"Our whole strategy around partnership has been to work with people, literally share in the profits, share in the revenue, under whatever terms make sense, [because then] everybody's in alignment. The fact that Android allows it does not require it. I think it's highly likely we would do it."

Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google

Motorola actually has its own Linux platform, called MOTOMAGX and announced just last August. It's based around Java applications, and Java certainly doesn't appear to be a player on the Android field right now. But Zander's comments seemed to indicate that his company has already made commitments to a Linux, and feels Android complements those commitments rather than substitutes for them - which suggests that the answer to the question of what Linux is Android using, remains "open."

Qualcomm CEO Dr. Paul Jacobs played right into Zander's comments, and against the theme of the day. "It's really time to focus on growing the pie instead of focusing on how we cut that pie up," Jacobs said, "and therefore there really is the potential for many different operating systems and operating environments to be supported on handsets."

Next: It all depends on your definition of "open."

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