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Jury out on Android; Linux knitting circle nonplussed

The activation of Google’s Android and the formation of the Open Handset Alliance earlier this week has raised more questions than answers, and nowhere more so than within the mobile Linux ‘knitting circle’ itself.

On Monday, Google and the newly formed Open Handset Alliance promised great things. The Android platform is described as a fully integrated mobile “software stack” that consists of an operating system, middleware, user-friendly interface and applications.

It will be made available for free under the Apache progressive open source licence and will be given to operators and device manufacturers. Customers will be free to customise Android, “in order to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost.”

While it sounds great, the announcement has largely been dismissed as marketing bluster and many industry watchers are waiting until next week to see if Google and the OHA make good on their promises. Android has said it will release a Software Development Kit (SDK) on November 12, which is expected to hold the answer to many questions.

As Sean Moss-Pultz, creator of the OpenMoko open mobile Linux initiative puts it, “I really have no idea what this Android stuff is all about. They come out with a press release. Thirty-something partners. And no code.”

This observation was echoed by Bill Weinberg, general manager of the LiPS Forum, another open mobile Linux proponent, who pointed out that, “operators want code, not standards.”

And depending on what the Android platform delivers, it could be just what the operator community has been looking for.

“Apache is a benign open source licence that isn’t really reciprocal,” said Weinberg. “It doesn’t prevent fragmentation and will allow Android to be taken in different directions,” he said. “But this is really what operators want because they do not strive to interoperate, so it’s in their interest to fork the Android stack in different directions.”

So while Andoid and the OHA is good news for Linux on the whole, it could become a victim of its own success. Weinberg predicts that instead of reducing the current 200 to 400 flavours of mobile platform software, a successful Android stack could double that number.

The analysts are also sceptical of the ‘openness’ that the OHA and Android is promising. Denmark-based Strand Consult called the announcement “old wine in a new bottle.” Essentially, Android is just one of many OS platforms in the market. “History shows that open standards (in the mobile world) in practice means everyone can use the technology if they pay a royalty fee to the company that owns the IPRs for the solution,” said john Strand of Strand Consult. “Nokia calls its Series 60 platform an open platform, just as all other suppliers of OSs do, when really all you’re doing is buying and paying for the technology they deliver.”

And Nokia is another one waiting to see the code before making any judgement calls. Kari Tuutti, director of communications for the Multimedia unit at Nokia, said, “We will have to see what the alliance delivers in concrete terms. Time will tell if it bring any value.”

In fact, one of the only operations to welcome Android with open arms is mobile Linux movement, the LiMo Foundation. But given that it shares a number of key members with the OHA, the news is hardly surprising.

One of the biggest questions waiting to be answered is whether Android is a smartphone platform or a feature phone stack. Google and the OHA are going to have their work cut out for them when it is taken into account that smartphones are really only 10 per cent of the overall handset market.

For Android to be successful and change the foundations of the application market, Strand reckons it needs to sell at least 250 million units – a number 25 times bigger than the market size Apple is targeting with its iPhone. And for this to take place, the smartphone market first has to explode in size.


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