Could Google's Android Be the Cell Phone Savior?

Opinion: Critics have been hard on Google's smart phone consortium. What they don't see is the sorry state of the cell phone market.

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For years, American technology leaders have gotten used to seeing the United States no longer globally technologically dominant. But nowhere is that lack-of-dominance more pronounced than with cell phone technology.

Whether it's interacting with digital signage, communicating with stores about inventory or paying for products directly with phones embedded with RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips, cell phones are proving to be clever and adept communication tools in key parts of Europe and Asia but not here.

With mobile payment, for example, the blame is placed on the U.S. mobile market's structure, with banks much more dominant overseas. Here, it's the cell phone carriers that own the landscape and call the shots.

That's why I saw this week's Google Android news as something that was exciting in its potential to shake up the industry. Trust me, this is one sector that truly needs a lot of shaking up.

The key question, though, is whether Google and the initial 34 members of the Open Handset Alliance will be able to do that shaking. (By the way, can you please tell me how Google could simultaneously use such a cute sci-fi OS name as Android and on the same day also roll out such a dorky and named-by-committee moniker as the Open Handset Alliance? Was this designed to establish some sort of equilibrium on the cool/uncool naming scale?)

Yes, the alliance doesn't have all the key telecom names that would be ideal, but that's to be expected. Some companies, such as AT&T and Apple, are notoriously nightmarish in these matters. The more important thing is whether the companies they did get have market clout. With T-Mobile, Qualcomm and Motorola on the domestic list-and Telecom Italia, China Mobile and NTT DoCoMo on the non-U.S. one-they have some serious chops in the cell phone space.

But let's state the obvious: The superstar on the list is Google. Does Google itself have the market clout to drive this effort? With control of so much of the world's data-and the world's advertising-there's little I would put beyond its potential.

Analysts say Android faces an uphill adoption battle. Click here to read more.

The U.S. mobile market today gives companies two less-than-ideal alternatives when trying to create mobile functionality. It can either go the app approach or the browser approach.

The app approach forces the consumer to download-or to have pre-installed-a small applet onto the phone. The chief pro: The final result should look exactly as the designers intended. The chief con: It limits the audience size to those whose OS and platform are compatible with the applet.

The browser approach is almost the opposite. Its potential audience size is all-but-infinite, but it requires a company to create another version of its Web site that would work well in the very screen-, RAM-, hard-disk- and connection-limited mobile world. The practical reality is to program to the lowest common denominator for all mobile OS and platform options.

Neither is an especially attractive option, but it's all that exists for today's company that wants to do mobile programming. This is where Android starts to look good. The group is creating a software development kit-to be released the week of Nov. 12-that would support open-source programming that would sit atop the platform. Truth be told, few companies today want to be in the mobile OS business. That's not where the money is. Will the Palm OS even exist in two years? Seen a lot of cutting-edge work being done on Microsoft CE? RIM's BlackBerry has some staying power, but the OS is also not its passion. Apple's iPhone OS? I've given up trying to predict Apple.

To be fair, Google doesn't exactly want to be in the mobile OS business either, but it has its eyes on a huge mobile advertising market. That's a market that nobody can touch until the U.S. mobile market gets cleaned up.

Am I suggesting that Android will work and will somehow deliver great things by the end of next year, as promised? Not necessarily. But I still hold out a lot of hope, given how much this industry needs it. I'm not so sure that necessity is the mother of invention-I've always felt that unrestrained avarice always did that job so much better.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn't plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at [email protected].

To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.

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