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.)
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.
For Android to succeed, though, it can't just please programmers. It must be at least as simple and stable as any other phone's software.
Google's past success at making simple but powerful interfaces for things like e-mail and maps bodes well. But it may be as important that this company has brought firms into the Android project with long experience in the phone business -- including such manufacturers as Intel, Samsung, LG, Motorola and Qualcomm and wireless carriers T-Mobile, Sprint, China Mobile and Japan's NTT DoCoMo.
Google and its partners have also shown a promising willingness to adopt outside software when appropriate. Android's Web browser, for example, runs on the open-source software inside the iPhone's browser.
The look of Android remains a mystery, but Google and its partners say they will release a preview version Monday. Phones running the software won't show up until the second half of 2008.
But open-source carries the risk of this project's own undoing. Companies that build and sell Android phones could always choose to revise it to lock out any tinkering by their customers. We could be stuck with software that's little more than a slicker replacement for our old smartphones, but with better shortcuts to Google's services.
Google thinks no one company would risk alienating customers who could turn to a competitor selling open, unlocked Android phones. But many of the corporations that have signed up as Android partners have been happy to sell locked-down phones that treat customers more like servants.
Those firms need to see Android as more than just a free operating system. They need to realize this could help them make powerful, flexible phones that people will enjoy using -- and which, in turn, will lead them to spend more time on the air and online, to the benefit of both the carrier and Google.
Can these often-stubborn companies find their way to that realization? Maybe a good Web search engine can help.