gPhone: Android to ring in thousands of Google phones

Is this the first incarnation of a Google operating system for all devices everywhere?


Farhad Manjoo
November 5, 2007 11:28PM (UTC)

"There is no such thing as a single gPhone," Steve Horowitz, one of the engineers who's been working on the thing that, for months, folks have been calling the "Google phone," says in the above YouTube video just now making the rounds. "What we're doing is enabling an entire industry to create thousands of gPhones."

What? Google's not building a mobile phone, but, instead, thousands of phones? That's right, in a manner of speaking.

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Today the company put an end to -- or maybe just ramped up -- months of speculation regarding its cell plans by announcing the creation of an industry organization that will create open-source software for mobile phones of all sorts. The group is called the Open Handset Alliance, and the software is called Android -- but it wouldn't be a stretch to call it, instead, the first incarnation of what will ultimately be the Google operating system. And not a moment too soon.

The Handset Alliance is Google's partnership with more than a couple of dozen tech firms, including handset manufacturers Motorola, LG, Samsung and HTC, and phone carriers T-Mobile, Sprint, Japan's NTT DoCoMo and China Mobile Communications. Google and other members of the group will create the software that runs the phones and give it away for free under an open-source license.

Why would Google want to do such a thing? Of course, because it expects to make money from the services -- its search engine, e-mail and all other apps -- that will run on the Android OS.

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Android was developed by Andy Rubin, a co-founder of Danger Inc., the venerable firm that invented the Sidekick mobile phone. Rubin now heads Google's mobile operations. (Read John Markoff's nice profile from Sunday's New York Times.)

Google says that phones based on Android won't ship until mid-2008, at the earliest, but it will release an SDK -- a kit for programmers to build software for Android -- in a week's time.

What we know of Android, right now, is nearly nil. Google says that Android will use the Linux operating system and the Java programming environment, and will be truly open -- that is, developers all over will be allowed to add services to the OS and customize it to their devices.

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The system may not even include Google's branding. Indeed, as the group's product page describes it, people may be able to customize everything about the look and feel and capabilities of their Android phones -- sort of like the way you can do whatever you want on your desktop computer today: "They can swap out the phone's homescreen, the style of the dialer, or any of the applications. They can even instruct their phones to use their favorite photo viewing application to handle the viewing of all photos," the Android overview says.

Does this sound revolutionary to you? If not, that's probably because it's all a bit vague and dreamy. Yet if Google executes the plan as it says it will, Android may very well work wonders to your phone.

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I don't mean it'll be good for GOOG (though it will be). I mean it'll be good for you. At the moment your phone is a jail cell. It could be, depending on your model, a very nice jail cell -- the Apple iPhone is like Martha Stewart's jail cell. Still, though, you can't get out. You can't do what you want. You're locked in by carriers, by handset manufacturers and by software companies to using only approved programs in an approved way.

Worse than that, there aren't many things to do on the phone anyway, because there isn't really a software industry devoted to building programs for such devices. Why should there be if all the users are in jail?

Android, if it's any good (obviously a big if, but hey, this is Google), would create that industry -- an ecosystem of apps that will continuallly offer new capabilities for your phone.

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But why think so small? After all, if Android can run on a phone, why couldn't it run on a tablet PC? Or an e-book reader? Or a media player? Or, right, the desktop on your desk at work?

See what I'm getting at? For Google, a gPhone, or even an OS for all phones, is probably aiming too low.

An operating system for all computers everywhere, one that's open source and owned by no one and maintained by everyone: Any such effort would be a huge threat to a computing industry that, fundamentally, has long been bent on keeping platforms closed (whether we're talking about Apple or Microsoft). Well, that's more in line with Google's grand aims.

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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