Monday, 5 November 2007

Google, the OS company

The bottom line: Google is now an OS company.

The fact that Google's recently-announced OS products are aimed at mobile devices and social networking sites is interesting, and I'll talk about the impact of that below. But it's secondary. I think the big, really important change is that Google has now jumped with both feet into the middle of the operating system world. That potentially has huge implications for the industry.

The impact will depend a lot on how Google follows up. If it pours substantial energy and resources into its OS offerings, it will be extremely bad news for Microsoft and other companies trying to charge money for their own platforms. On the other hand, if Google doesn't make a serious long-term commitment, it will embarrass itself deeply. This isn't like launching a new web application -- an OS has to be complete, and it has to work properly in version 1, or there won't be a version 2.

What they announced

It's kind of ironic. For years after Google became a prominent web company, people speculated about whether or when it would create its own OS. The logic was that Microsoft has its own OS, and Google was challenging Microsoft, so Google would create its own OS too. But then as the years went by and it didn't happen, people moved on to other subjects. The speculation died out. But one of my rules about the tech industry is that "obvious" things happen only after everyone in the industry has written them off. So I guess Google was due.

The company has been creeping toward the OS space for a while. Google Gadgets is an API to create small applications that run in web pages, and Google Gears is code that lets web apps run offline, making it easier for them to challenge desktop applications. But they were both relatively low-profile (or as low profile as anything Google ever does). But in the last couple of weeks, Google made two much more assertive announcements:

--OpenSocial is an effort to create a shared platform for applications that can be embedded within social websites (link).

--The Open Handset Alliance is an effort to create a shared platform powering mobile devices (link).

Although they're aimed at very different parts of the industry, they're both efforts to create a standard platform where there was fragmentation; and they're both alliances of numerous companies, with Google providing most of the code and the marketing glue. I think there's a recurring theme here.

Details on the Open Handset Alliance

Open Social was covered very heavily when it was announced a couple of weeks ago, so I won't recap it all here. If you want more details, Marc Andreessen did an enthusiastic commentary about it on his weblog (link).

The OHA announcement was today, and I want to call out some highlights:

--It's built around a Linux implementation called Android. Android will be free of charge and open source, licensed under terms that allow companies to use it in products without contributing back any of their own code to the public. This will probably annoy a lot of open source fans, but it's important for adoption of the OS, as many companies thinking about working with Linux worry that they will accidentally obligate themselves to give away their own source code.

--Google is creating a suite of applications that will be bundled with Android, but they can be replaced freely by companies that want to bundle other apps, according to Michael Gartenberg (link). There is a lot of speculation, though, that if you bundle the Google apps you'll get a subsidy from Google. The folks over at Skydeck estimate the subsidy could be about $50 per device (link). That might not sound like huge money to you and me, but keep in mind that mobile phone companies routinely turn backflips to squeeze 25 cents out of the cost of a phone. When you sell millions of phones a year, it adds up.

--A huge list of companies participated in the announcement. That's not as impressive as it sounds; when you have a well-known brand, a lot of companies will do a joint press release with you just for the publicity value. But a few stood out:

Hardware vendors. Samsung, Motorola, LG, and HTC all endorsed the OS. HTC and LG gave particularly enthusiastic quotes. The first three companies have all been playing with Linux for some time, so I wasn't surprised. But HTC is another matter -- it is the most innovative Windows Mobile licensee, and Microsoft must be very disturbed to see it blowing kisses at Google.

(A side comment on Motorola: For a company that said it wanted to consolidate down on a small number of platforms, Motorola is behaving strangely -- it jumped all over Symbian a couple of weeks ago, and now is supporting Android as well. I think it has now endorsed more mobile operating systems than any other handset vendor.)

Operators. Participants in the announcement included NTT DoCoMo (a long-time Linux lover), KDDI, China Mobile, T-Mobile, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, and Sprint. That's a very nice geographic spread, and ensures enough operator interest to make the handset vendors invest.

--Google claims all Android applications will have the same level of access to data on the phone. That's pretty interesting -- most smartphone platforms have been moving toward a multiple-level approach in which you need more rigorous security certification in order to access some features of the phone. I'll be interested to see how the security model on Android works.

--We'll get technical information on the OS November 12, and the first phones based on Android should ship in the second half of 2008.

--Although Android's first focus is mobile phones, the New York Times reports that it can be used in other consumer devices as well (link).

What it means to the mobile industry

It all depends on the quality of Google's work and the depth of its commitment. If Android has technical or performance problems, it could sink like a stone. If it doesn't have enough drivers or has poor technical support, the handset vendors will avoid it. If the developers can't create good applications, users won't want it. This is a very different business for Google -- handset vendors and operators will not tolerate the sloppy, indifferent technical support that Google provides for its consumer web apps.

If, on the other hand, Google's platform really works and the company invests in it, I think it could have some very important impacts.

Impact on Windows Mobile: Ugliness. The handset companies endorsing Android are also Microsoft's most prominent mobile licensees. I doubt any of them are planning to completely abandon Microsoft (they don't want to be captive to any single OS vendor), but any effort they put into Android is effort that doesn't go into Windows Mobile. So this is ominous.

The whole mobile thing just hasn't worked out the way Microsoft planned. First it couldn't get the big handset brands to license its software, so it focused on signing phone clone vendors in Asia, thinking it could use them to pull down the big guys. But Nokia and the other big brands used their volume and manufacturing skill to beat the daylights out of the small cloners.

Now Google is coming after the market with an OS that's completely free, and may even be subsidized. This will put huge financial pressure on not just Windows Mobile, but all of Windows CE. Even if Microsoft can hold share, its prospects of ever making good money in the sub-PC space look increasingly remote.

Impact on Access: Ugly ugliness. How do you sell your own version of Linux when the world's biggest Internet company is giving one away? I don't know.

Impact on Symbian: Hard to judge. Symbian is the preferred OS of Nokia. As long as Nokia continues to use Symbian, it stays in business. The question is how much it'll grow. After years of painful effort, Symbian just managed to get increased endorsements from Motorola and Samsung. Now Google is messing with both of them. Japan has been a very important growth market for Symbian, now Android is endorsed by both DoCoMo and KDDI. All of that must feel very uncomfortable. If nothing else, it's likely to produce pressure on Symbian to lower its prices. And Symbian should be asking what happens if Android turns out to be everything Google promises -- a free OS that lets handset vendors create great phones easily. It's not fun competing against a free product that's been subsidized by one of the richest companies in the world (just ask Netscape).

Maybe if Symbian agrees to enable Google services on its platform it can get the same subsidies as Android does. It's worth asking. If not, maybe Symbian should be looking for other places where it can add value in the mobile ecosystem.

Impact on mobile developers: Potentially great. Mobile developers have suffered terribly from two things: They have to work through operators to get their applications to market, and they have to rewrite their applications dozens of times for different phones. If Android produces a single consistent Java environment for mobile applications, that would be a big win. And if it can open up the distribution channels for mobile apps, that would be great as well. We don't have enough details to judge either outcome yet, and the app distribution one depends on business arrangements that may be outside Google's control.

Impact on Apple, RIM, and Palm: Probably none at all. A lot of the coverage of Android is positioning it as some sort of challenger to iPhone and RIM.

I don't buy it.

Apple, RIM, and Palm all make integrated systems in which the software and hardware are coordinated together to solve a user problem. Android, by contrast, is only an operating system. It's plumbing, not the whole house. Unless Google's handset licensees magically develop the ability to design for users -- a feat equivalent to a giraffe sprouting wings -- their products won't be any better as systems solutions than they are today. The OS hasn't been the thing holding them back, and changing OS won't alter the situation.

Android puts interesting financial pressure on Microsoft, but it doesn't directly solve any compelling user problems. If it eventually drives a great base of mobile applications, that might eventually be attractive to some users. But in that case the systems vendors could just add a copy of Google's application runtime (it's open source, they can grab it anytime they want). Or they could host their devices on Google's plumbing. Palm and RIM might both benefit if they could transfer engineers away from core OS and toward adding value that's visible to users.

Impact on the tech industry: This isn't just about mobile phones

I have no access to Google's internal thinking, but even if it sincerely believes it's only doing a mobile phone OS, I don't think it can or will stop there. Technology products often develop a momentum of their own, no matter what was intended at the start. The lines between the computing and mobile worlds are breaking down already, and if Google creates an attractive software platform that's free of charge, that platform will inevitably get sucked into other types of devices. I'm not saying that Android is going to end up in PCs, but if it's functional and well supported I think it could end up running on just about everything else that has a screen.

Besides, if you look across all of the recent Google announcements, I think it's clear that Google has a larger agenda: It wants to break down walled gardens, because they interfere with Google's ability to deliver its services. It has even developed a standard methodology for attacking them: Create a consortium so you don't look like a bully, and fund an "open" alternative to whatever is in the way. They are doing it to Facebook, and they're doing it to Windows Mobile. Google doesn't even have to make money from the consortium, as long as it clears the ground for its services to grow.

Take a lesson from evolutionary history. The most successful animals are not those that adapt to the environment; they are the ones that reshape the environment to match their needs. I think that's what Google is doing. It's going to use open source and alliances to suck the profitability out of anybody who creates a proprietary island that it can't target.

It'll be interesting to see if and how Google applies this principle to the upcoming frequency auction in the US.

Or to anyone else who gets in its way.

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