Google has made its much anticipated and rumored play in the mobile phone market. But instead of a cell phone, Google is releasing an open platform, a one-stop software development kit for hardware manufacturers and software developers alike.
The end result, say analysts, is likely to be less expensive phones for customers and more opportunities for developers.
Google’s new open handset platform, Android, is not the first, but the third open phone operating system, after Trolltech’s Qtopia and OpenMoko. All three are based on Linux. But Google’s initiative is the first to solve the thorny problem of licensing. “Android is a complete phone stack. You don’t need to license lots of pieces from other people. It’s everything you need to deliver a complete handset,” Rich Miner, Google’s lead of wireless strategy, told eWEEK.
“[Android] is much more than a techie open-source project,” Miner said, “it’s…a commitment from 33 companies to either participate in the building of that platform or to participate in the building of handsets or shipping of handsets to their customers.”
Ironically, Google’s open solution may irritate some open-source groups, as it relieves the pressure for embedded hardware manufacturers to open their hardware.
But by cutting through the legal red tape, Google has lowered the barrier for software makers to get software into a mobile phone operating system. At the same time, it’s reduced the costs to hardware manufacturers to put new phones in the market.
Currently, much of the software in a cell phone needs to be licensed from a third party. Miner said, “If that Web browser [on your cell phone] is an Opera Web browser, you have to license it. Where does my Midi sequencer come from so we can play Midi ring tones? You typically have to license that.”
This is particularly true of features like Wi-Fi, 3G data, or GPS, all of which require hardware from manufacturers who typically only allow its use with their own proprietary licensed drivers.
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Add the licenses for Symbian, Windows Mobile, or some other smart phone operating system, plus a few more for Web browsers and other third-party applications, and you’re looking at a pile of legal complications. This presents an obstacle to smaller companies and legions of open-source developers who might want to improve your phone, or to build a better one.
Licensing can be both expensive and difficult to obtain and has stymied other open-source projects. Miner said, “The other…initiatives have very much been experiments, or they haven’t been complete products.”
There are several open-source licenses, the best known of which is the Free Software Foundations’ GNU GPL (General Public License); most Linux software and the Linux kernel itself is licensed under the GPL. But there are others: The LGPL (Lesser GPL) is a variant of the GPL for libraries, with looser restrictions on commercial use.
Some software uses the BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) license, which imposes almost no restrictions.
The LiMo Foundation, an alliance to create an open-source solution for mobile handsets, created the FPL (Foundation Public License), which is a blend of open-source licensing and commercial licensing.
Morgan Gillis, executive director of the LiMo Foundation, said: “The original open-source licenses did not give the necessary protections to proprietary IP when it came to be mixed with open-source IP within the context of an embedded software system. … More recent open-source licenses have been designed to address that specific point and to allow commercial organizations both by the mobile industry and within other industries in a safe manner use open-source technology in conjunction with their own technology.”
For Android, Google picked the license devised for Apache 2.
Gillis said that license “has a good liberal approach to intellectual property in the sense that the intellectual property can be onward distributed very freely, but it also includes necessary safeguards to protect proprietary IP when open source is combined with proprietary IP within an embedded system.”
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Steven Mosher, vice president of marketing for OpenMoko, which is building an open-source cell phone to be released later this year, said, “There are always licensing challenges.” He said that corporations tend not to release licenses because what differentiates their products from competitors is “their secret sauce.” And companies do not want their “fundamental IP” out of their control.
Open-source advocates argue that these fears are not borne out by reality and actively encourage companies to open up their hardware. But companies in the mobile hardware space have thus far been slow to accept the invitation.
OpenMoko’s Neo1973 phone uses only completely open hardware, so developers working on the OpenMoko platform don’t need commercial licenses to write software for it. They also have access to the hardware specifications and so can write better drivers. This may actually give it an edge over Google’s offering. By contrast, Android will offer phone manufacturers a broader range of hardware to include in their phones.
Google plans to shake up the industry. If nothing else, it’s got a lot of phones ringing.
The first cell phones using Android are expected to hit the market in mid-2008.
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