Will Google's Android Cure iPhone-Envy?

Analysis of News Events
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The emerging open mobile platform promises a wealth of opportunities for developers and may quench longings for Apple's tempting touch-screen device.


Psychologists this summer have identified a new emotional syndrome spreading among IT professionals: it's called iPhone-envy.


Thankfully, both the "other" kind of envy--identified by Freud at the turn of the 20th Century as occurring among young girls when they realize they don't have the equipment that their brothers possess--and iPhone-envy are treatable! With the "other" kind of envy (which, to be honest, has today been largely discredited), the girl eventually grows up, transfers her interest from her father to an older guy with a Harley, gets married, and lives happily ever after (right!).


But iPhone-envy may not self extinguish. It can go on and on and on--at least until your present cell phone contract expires, which could be years down the road. This can lead to depression, marital discord, self-inflicted property damage, and unfulfilled contracts. Have you ever found yourself paying on the contract for a cell phone that you no longer use? Ahem. Well, some of us have, I can assure you.


The recent release of the iPhone 3G has made the situation even worse. Reports of severe depression caused by chronic iPhone-envy are starting to pour into the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. The CDC dispatched a team of investigators and identified the root cause of iPhone-envy to be none other than...the Federal Communications Commission! You see, unlike most European agencies, which allow mobile phones to be independent of the service carriers, the FCC continues to support a policy that allows service providers, such as AT&T, to lock up the iPhone exclusively for their customers alone and no one else. This policy prevails despite recent arguments and lobbying by consumer groups that want to open up the field and allow people to use any cell phone they wish with any service.


Enter Google and the Open Handset Alliance. As it turns out, full-blown iPhone-envy has been a growing malady for quite some time, though its symptoms were never as sharply evident as they are today. Google began to think of ways to fight this epidemic and came up with the idea of an open platform that would support a variety of different mobile devices. (Could it have begun because Google's Eric Schmidt sits on the Apple board?) Today, the idea is a reality, and the platform is called Android. It allows developers to access core mobile device functionality through standard API calls and holds the promise of breaking down boundaries by allowing the combination of Web data with information residing on the phone, such as contact information.


The mobile phone on which Android will first run is called the "Dream," and it's being developed by High Tech Computing (HTC) of Taiwan, one of the world's largest mobile phone makers. The FCC already has given the HTC Dream its formal blessing. With that, some have begun to call it the "anti-iPhone" and even "iPhone killer" (though with the Apple iPhone's acknowledged reception problems and yet-to-be acknowledged "white screen of death," it may kill itself first). The Dream is expected to have basic cell phone features like multimedia messaging, voice dialing, and video recording, all of which are lacking on the iPhone. The Dream will feature Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a jog-ball type of navigation toggle (similar to the trackball on the BlackBerry Pearl). There are indications it may support T-Mobile's new 3G band, WCDMA 1700.


T-Mobile, the U.S.'s fourth-largest carrier and Germany's leader, through its parent company, Deutsche Telekom, has announced that it will introduce its first Android-powered phone before Christmas. Many people are expecting it could be even sooner, possibly as early as October. Chip-maker Qualcomm, a member of the Open Handset Alliance, says it has been working with more than five phone manufacturers on Android phones. Sprint, the U.S.'s third-largest carrier and an Alliance member, says it has been working closely with Google but has no date set for offering a phone running Android. The largest U.S. carriers, AT&T and Verizon, have not yet committed to selling Android phones, according to The New York Times.


Meanwhile, Google has been busy getting developer support for Android. Last spring, it created a contest for developers--the Android Developer Challenge--to create applications for the new platform and received more than 1,700 submissions. A third came from the U.S., but the rest arrived from 69 other countries. A panel of judges evaluated the applications and picked the top 50, the majority of which are listed here.


Meanwhile, Google released an updated version and true beta of its Android software developers kit (SDK) this week, V0.9, which the company says is very close to the final thing. Readers can download it from here. The SDK has what developers need to build and run Android applications, including a device emulator and advanced debugging tools. One thing Google touts about Android is that it doesn't differentiate between a phone's basic and its third-party applications. Even the dialer and home screen can be replaced. To watch several videos that explain the Android architecture, show an Android demo, and address how to build an Android application, visit YouTube.


Security researchers have now been set loose on the new platform, and Google, which already has fixed numerous bugs, is expecting a spate of changes to come from what researchers find. Achieving the right balance between security and convenience for such an open consumer device isn't easy. The Google Android Security Team is asking only that security researchers follow reasonable disclosure practices so the vulnerabilities and the patches are announced concurrently, and then credit will be awarded where it's due.


Besides iPhone-envy, what are the underlying reasons behind the interest in a new mobile platform? The answer can be found in the numbers. Today, there are reportedly about 1.1 billion PCs in the world. However, there are three times that many mobile devices, according to Google's Jason Chen. This huge market is growing fast, and software developers who want to be sure they have a large and growing market will want to look at developing applications for mobile devices.