Open Mobile Handset Alliance - Google's Mobile Adventure

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A group of companies, led by Google, today announced the formation of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) and the development of Android, a Linux based software platform for mobile devices. Other companies involved include T-Mobile, Qualcomm, HTC, Samsung and Motorola and the first phones based on Android are scheduled to be available in the second half of 2008. Read on for more.

The key aims of the alliance are:

This alliance shares a common goal of fostering innovation on mobile devices and giving consumers a far better user experience than much of what is available on today's mobile platforms. By providing developers a new level of openness that enables them to work more collaboratively, Android will accelerate the pace at which new and compelling mobile services are made available to consumers.

Android is termed 'the first complete, open, and free mobile platform'. The Open Handset Alliance is placing a great emphasis on the benefits of openess arguing that it allows greater innovation and open the mobile phone for third party developers. This is the same message that  the owners of Symbian, especially Nokia and Sony Ericsson, have been espousing for the last 7 years. Indeed the idea of an open mobile platform is the de facto definition for smartphone. 

It is therefore difficult to take seriously Google's claims that the Open Handset Alliance represents a new idea. On the Android overview page we are told that there is no differentiation between third party and core applications - something smartphone owners have been enjoying for the last 10 years. This is not a negative point against Android itself, but rather that the PR message being used is unfortunate.

Details around Android are thin on the ground; there are few details on capabilities of the OS. Android will presumably start with the basics and thus the initial focus may be on mid tier phones. What is clear is that the intentions are that it will be made available as open source under the Apache 2 license. This license will allow member to use Android and add their own innovation without being required to contribute these back to the community. This could be an potential weakness since it will result in different implementations from different handset manufacturers which are not binary compatible.

While its open source nature may be well regarded within the technical community it does not necessarily make it better than a closed sourced but open platform like Symbian or Windows Mobile. Indeed the open source has its own problems in governance terms; with large groups it can be difficult to come to a consensus about future development directions.

There are a large number of companies contributing to OHA including several manufacturers (a vital ingredient), but it is very unlikely to be used in a significant portion of their portfolio (with the possible exception of HTC who may be looking to move into a new segment to balance out the dominance of Microsoft powered handsets). This alone means Android may struggle to gain significant handset market share which in turn would mean that there would be little incentive to develop for it on a commercial basis. 

There are a number of existing Mobile Linux initiatives, that espouse a very similar set of goals. Among the better known of the is the LiMo Foundation whose members include Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic Mobile Communications, Samsung Electronics, and Vodafone. Clearly membership between OHA and LiMo overlaps perhaps demonstrating the fragmented nature of current mobile Linux initiatives.   

Ultimately, for many of the companies, involvement in OHA may be as much about trying to make sure there is an alternative to the dominance of Symbian and Microsoft. With Google's name and prestige behind it Android may stand a better chance than competing mobile Linux initiatives.

More information can be found at the OHA website