Several big name telecom providers and a raft of software developers announced support for the Google-led Open Handset Alliance (OHA) announced on Monday. The OHA supports a Linux-based software platform called Android, owned by Google, that promises to make development of applications for mobile phones easier and less costly.
While the initial list of official OHA backers, including Motorola, Sprint Nextel, Qualcomm, HTC and T-Mobile, is impressive, the absence of AT&T, Verizon, Microsoft, Apple, Nokia as well as Symbian is also worth noting.
Symbian, which brands itself “the open mobile operating system,” is jointly owned by Nokia, Ericsson, Panasonic, Samsung, Siemens and Sony Ericsson and has the biggest share of the operating system market for mobile devices.
Scott Rockfeld, Microsoft group product manager for mobile communications, said the OHA announcement “isn’t new or revolutionary.”
Microsoft has evolved Windows Mobile for the past five years, has deals with 160 mobile operators and 48 devices manufacturers worldwide including the one’s supporting OHA. “We have thousands of developers who have built over 18,000 applications for Windows Mobile,” he told told InternetNews.com.
Rockfeld pointed to several examples of developers innovating on top of the Windows Mobile platform, such as OHA member HTC which offers its TouchFlow touch-screen interface on certain models.
About 11 million devices shipped with Windows Mobile software last year and Rockfeld said that number is projected to almost double, to 20 million, for 2007. He said the OHA announcement is a confirmation of Microsoft’s strategy to grow a large developer community. “We already have an entire ecosystem and we’re going to continue with the strategy of working with multiple partners.”
Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs said OHA isn’t about one or several companies trying to steal market share from others, but a chance to grow the consumer market for cell phones. “It’s really time to grow the pie rather than keep trying to figure out how we cut that pie up,” he said in the OHA conference call this morning. “There is opportunity for many different operating systems.”
Some observers think the OHA will help the U.S. catch up to other countries in offering a range of advanced mobile services to consumers. “Until now, the industry has been afraid to speak out publicly about the amount of power that U.S. mobile carriers wield and the limited personal control and choice given to the consumer,” said Greg Spector, a spokesman for Rebtel, in an e-mail sent to InternetNews.com. Rebtel is a consumer service that enables cheap or free international calls.
“Google is changing the power dynamic, finally putting consumers in the driver’s seat,” Spector continued. He predicts that in a few years mobile carriers will “be the utility companies they should be and consumers will truly control their own devices. Then, third party services that consumers want, like Rebtel, will not be blocked for competitive reasons – consumers simply won’t allow it.”
Public Knowledge, a Washington D.C.-based group that lobbies in the areas of digital culture and technology, said OHA is “a step in the right direction” toward the development of new cellular technologies.
“This project shows the value that most of the wireless world places on opening up cell phones and wireless services,” said Public Knowledge president Gigi B. Sohn, in a statement. The lobbying group has supported a petition by Skype that would require the winning bidder of the FCC’s 700 MHz spectrum auction require open services and handsets.
Google is expected to bid on the 700 MHz spectrum. During today’s OHA announcement, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said the spectrum auction is a completely separate initiative. “Android will run very, very well on all established networks” as well as 700 MHz, he said.
Mobile handsets based on Linux
While clearly the most ambitious, the OHA is not the first effort to broaden the developer community for mobile handsets based on a Linux platform. Trolltech developed a Linux-based application framework for mobile called Qtopia and released its own device, the Greenphone, based on it. The Greenphone’s been discontinued, but Trolltech continues to promote and develop Qtopia.
Trolltech’s chief technology officer, Benoit Schillings, said it’s possible Trolltech will be able to develop or support OHA in some way since it’s Linux-related. “Right now, until they show the software development kit next week, it’s hard to say if the announcement makes my life easier or more difficult,” Schillings told InternetNews.com.
Schillings worries the OHA software license, based on Apache and described by Google’s Schmidt as “the broadest and most liberal in the industry” could fragment the mobile industry away from a more consistent user experience. “Under the Apache license anyone can take it apart, modify it and not have to publish the result back to the community.”
Schmidt said it was possible, but unlikely, a phone company would create a closed device based on OHA because they would be cut off from updates and advances by other developers. But Schillings doesn’t think it’s a very far-fetched scenario. “Device manufacturers like to keep their secrets close. If they can get a free lunch (from OHA) and cook it differently, they might.”