Android Makes Like I, Robot
When Google unveiled Android last Nov. 5 the company positioned the open-source mobile operating system as a complete stack: operating system, middleware, user-friendly interface and applications.
The stated goal of its supporting group, the Open Handset Alliance, was to lower the cost of developing and distributing devices while providing a better user experience for customers who want a more PC-like experience on their smart phones. The positioning was highly altruistic.
Halfway through February, we have seen prototype devices from TI and ARM at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. Early reports are that Android is lightweight, and users can zip among applications with ease. What we still don't know is how Google will deploy Android and what it will work with.
Complete stack implies you don't need anything else. This spells trouble for LiMo, the open-source mobile OS consortium, a half dozen of whose members created the software from Linux to run on any device.
Android and the LiMo are both open source and are presented as alternatives to Symbian, Microsoft and Palm, but there are some key differences, according to LiMo Foundation Executive Director Morgan Gillis.
"We've chosen the middleware-only part because we believe it's important to leave the handset makers and the operators freedom to deploy their own user experience ideas on top of common middleware," Gillis said.
Implied in that statement is that Google doesn't let handset makers and operators make that decision. By offering the complete stack, Google has taken care of everything for you. This is control masquerading behind an open-source mask.
When pressed, Gillis refused to see Android and LiMo as competitors, which is fair. LiMo members including Samsung (also a member of the OHA and has pledged to put out an Android phone later this year) pumped out 15 phones this week compared to Android's paucity of prototypes.
However, the emergence of Android on smart phones from Samsung and HTC later this year would seem to render LiMo as obsolete.
There is no connection now, but what will the relationship be between Android and LiMo? Will they be competing platforms, or a case study in free market, where more choices will be good for everyone involved?
Gillis said LiMo is ready to work with Google, but said the relationship "depends on how Google deploys [Android's] user experience and its content. If they deploy in cross-platform, they could deploy on top of LiMo and other platforms. At the moment, they are saying they want to offer a large monolithic software stack and you can take the whole thing or nothing."
All or nothing sounds ominous. It doesn't sound very simpatico viewed through the multiple-choice lens of open source. Gillis repeated that Google has yet to explain how it plans to deploy or go-to-market with Android, but said he is confident Google will exhibit further "iterations" in its approach to the mobile industry.
Still, the issue must be disconcerting to Gillis. An analyst basically told me that Android will smash LiMo because handset makers and operators don't want an incomplete stack; they want the whole thing done for them.
It could be a long time before the Android-LiMo string plays itself out. Gillis told me getting a mobile OS to market on devices tends to take three times as long as expected and then Google has to deal with the proprietary vendors.
But when Gillis slings phrases like "monolithic software stack" it doesn't sound like a product that makes room for a lot of choice or freedom, never mind freedom of choice.
Will Android make like I, Robot and seize control of the open-source mobile OS market?