BOSTON — Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Does the same hold true for building a better smartphone?
That’s what Google is trying to prove. But the leader in online search is already having to defend its strategy behind backing the open source Android mobile platform, which saw its first compatible handset — the T-Mobile G1 — hit the market just this week.
Speaking here yesterday at Mobile Internet World in Boston, Rich Miner, Google’s general manager of mobile platforms, mapped out the company’s reasoning behind its open source dive into the complex world of mobile operating systems. Yet after his presentation, an audience member challenged the apparent conflict between Google’s avowed dedication to open platforms and T-Mobile’s two-year contractual lockdown on purchasers of its G1 phone.
Miner said that it came down to simple business: T-Mobile subsidizes the cost of the phone to make it cheaper for consumers, in return for a contractual commitment during which it can recoup the costs — a typical arrangement among U.S. carriers.
But Miner said Google’s real motivation lies in its being in the information business — not the phone manufacturing business, and repeated the company’s oft-cited goal.
“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” he said.
The result may still be the same, however: Google is doing whatever it can simply to get Android devices into the hands of consumers, increasing the overall universe of mobile Web users and the number of users of the Google apps and services that are deeply embedded in Android
“This is about hundreds of phones, all based on Android, and penetrating that marketplace,” he said earlier during his keynote.
Of course, putting Android on as many different devices as possible and encouraging mobile developers to support it will likely have a big payoff for the dominant force in Internet search as well as an emerging force in cloud-based apps. But Miner described Google’s chief motivation with Android as a response to a lack of innovation in the mobile space.
“When someone controls a platform, they stifle innovation,” he said, without naming names. This makes it hard “for other people to innovative in that value chain.”
“No one can completely control the [Android] platform,” he added.
As Google makes its case for its approach to forcing its way into the convoluted, multi-billion-dollar mobile industry, there’s a lot at stake — but also a number of trends that the company sees working in its favor.
Chiefly, Miner said the world is changing, with more people than ever using mobile phones as their primary Internet device.
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Right now, there are more than 3 billion mobile phone users worldwide, compared to roughly 1.1 billion, mostly non-mobile, users of the Internet, he said. Add to the mix that only about 200 million PCs are sold yearly, as compared with 1.27 billion phones, and you quickly realize what keeps Google’s adrenalin pumping these days.
“Things are clearly shifting,” he added. Mobile phones are adopting desktop-level capabilities, and developers are getting mobile applications direct to consumers — trends that he expects Google to benefit from.
Embracing the open
It’s also not merely about creating another new platform for application development, Miner said. Instead, the fact that Android is open source is a key reason why Google expects that it has a real future in mobile phones.
While hardware costs continue to drop, prices associated with software development and licensing — especially on a mobile platform — continue to climb. In fact, it is fast approaching 25 percent of the device cost, Miner said. This creates problems for third-world and developing countries, where mobile may be the only voice and data link.
On the other hand, since Android is based on a thin layer of Linux, it is open source, free to use and freely available.
While developers and carriers might have a financial incentive to explore it, Miner said one challenge in getting Android off the ground was ensuring that developers of all of the underlying layers of a mobile OS were on the same page, and equally dedicated to the cause of openness.
That might have been no easy task, considering some of the big egos involved in Android. The effort has attracted the involvement of giants in the mobile carrier and hardware space, like LG Electronics, Motorola, Samsung, Qualcomm, Intel, NTT DoCoMo, Telecom China and a raft of other global players, who have joined the Open Handset
Getting everyone involved to accept openness required skirting the formal task forces and standards-setting bodies typical for such efforts, Miner said.
“Most things done through a collaborative are based on membership level and who is talking loudest in the room,” he said. “You end up with an architecture that is not based on the best technology, but on politics.”
“It’s a very different model for doing open source work and standards-based work,” he added.
As for helping to create a so-called “iPhone killer,” Miner pointed out that Google and Apple — while both now offering competing platforms, and both vying for the attention of mobile developers — have been working together on a number of projects that target mobile applications.
He didn’t go into specifics, but Google has long made a number of its services available in iPhone-friendly formats and apps.