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I Wanted a gPhone, But All I Got Was This Android

After months of media-built hype, the mythical "gPhone" was unveiled this week as Android, a Linux-based software stack for building mobile phones. Despite the disappointment, Android might be just what the market needs, if the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) can actually get an open stack shipping on real devices.

After months of media-built hype, the mythical “gPhone” was unveiled this week as Android, a Linux-based software stack for building mobile phones. Despite the disappointment, Android might be just what the market needs, if the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) can actually get an open stack shipping on real devices.

First let’s set the record straight. Google and its OHA teammates aren’t even the first out of the gate with an open mobile platform. Android isn’t likely to be available until mid-2008, but other open platforms are already underway, and shipping developer kits. The OpenMoko project has a budding community built around a Linux-based software stack and reference hardware.

However, OpenMoko doesn’t have the juice that Google does. Let’s face it, the only mobile initiative that’s gotten more press than the fabled gPhone in the past year is Apple’s iPhone. OpenMoko isn’t even on the radar of the vast majority of mobile phone users, so the likelihood of it generating substantial consumer demand is fairly slim.

It’s also worth noting that, while many pundits (and a few users) have complained about the lack of third-party applications for the iPhone, it hasn’t stopped the device from being wildly successful. The lesson here? While open is important, it doesn’t seem to be a strong selling point for mobile devices. (Or, frankly, desktop operating systems either.)

A Disappointing Turn

While Android is interesting, a gPhone would have been much more welcome. Firstly, it’s disappointing that we’re going to be waiting until mid-2008 to see a final product — but such is life. It takes time to develop mobile platforms (Apple had to put Leopard on hold for several months just to get the iPhone out the door on time) so it’s not a huge surprise that Google wasn’t announcing a shipping phone this week.

But the fact that Google isn’t spearheading this with its own branded device is very disappointing. Successful products come from a leader with a vision, like Apple with the iPhone. Whether or not one worships at the altar of Steve, it’s hard to deny that a groundbreaking product like the iPhone couldn’t have been produced by committee.

I also have to wonder whether we’ll really see a “open” platform when all is said and done. While I have no doubt that the final reference platform from Android will be a fine mobile OS, I wonder whether the final product to reach users will be diluted by the time it makes it to shipping devices that have been blessed by mobile carriers. Specifically, I wonder whether we’ll really be able to run any third-party app on the Android phones, or a select few apps that come from approved vendors via the carriers themselves.

The upside to Android announcement is that Android phones need not be tied to Google services exclusively — or at all. If T-Mobile or another provider decides to partner with Yahoo! or another player, they’re free to do so.

Mobile: The Final Frontier

Despite my reservations, I’m holding out hope for the Android-based devices. We need it, or another open platform, to succeed in this market — because this market is too important to lose.

The desktop, as we know it, is likely to become less and less important for most users in the next few years. The apps that most people want will be filled by mobile devices, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. started seeing a the same decline in PC sales as Japan is seeing now.

Which means that it’s vitally important for FOSS enthusiasts to concentrate on the mobile market. Let’s hope that Android can succeed where desktop Linux has stalled.

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