Google and Cellphones: Let Freedom Ring

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, November 8, 2007

Google might save the cellphone from its miserable self. In a year. If wireless carriers stop acting like, well, wireless carriers.

This technological salvation won't come from the Google Phone, a near-mythic handset that Google's mad scientists were supposedly cooking up in the lab.

Instead, it could come from software called Android that Google has developed with outside help. It plans to give it to manufacturers for use on hundreds of different phones -- then let users tinker with the software all they want.

That last bit makes Android special. With this operating system, Google aims to give wireless users three freedoms routinely denied in the United States.

The most basic one is the freedom to use the Web as you want. We take this for granted on personal computers, except when an Internet service provider gets caught restricting access in some sneaky fashion. (The latest example is Comcast, which has interrupted the use of BitTorrent, a popular system for music and video downloads.)

Not so on phones, which may keep you from going where you want on the Web. A carrier's terms of use may ban entire classes of Internet applications, such as Web radio or videos.

Then comes the freedom to add the programs you want. Palm OS and Windows Mobile phones allow this choice, but most don't. For example, T-Mobile's Sidekick and Verizon's Get It Now restrict you to applications in an online catalogue. Others don't allow any add-on software.

The last freedom is the liberty to change your phone's underlying software to add new capabilities, change unwanted behaviors or fix flaws. Name-brand cellphones don't allow this flexibility. If you dislike something about the phone -- the way the iPhone is locked to AT&T's network, for example -- you can only hope that the manufacturer fixes it in the next version.

Google and the 33 other companies that make up a new group called the Open Handset Alliance want to advance those three freedoms.

These firms say the Android software, announced Monday, will include features found in the iPhone, the BlackBerry and Palm and Windows Mobile devices, such as Web browsing, e-mail, music and video playback, as well as contact lists and calendar management.

But unlike the software code those competitors use, Android's won't be a secret. Anybody will be able to inspect, edit and use the software free. You might not want to bother, but many programmers will. So you could use their software to customize an Android phone, from simple changes like replacing ringtones to such sweeping upgrades as redoing its interface.

That's not how most commercial software has been developed in the past. But some of the most popular programs around, such as the Firefox Web browser, are open-source products.

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