How will Google make sure its open-source phone operating system takes off? The same way Google does everything else, of course -- by throwing gobs of money and engineers at the problem.
Last week the firm unveiled Android, the programming platform it hopes will soon find a home on a phone near you.
Openness is the soul of Android's charm: Unlike most phones today, devices running Android will be able to run applications created by third-party developers. Google hopes to create on the phone the sort of open programming culture that's made the Web so great -- great for all of us as well as for Google's bottom line.
Today Google put out a sneak peek at Android in the form of an SDK -- a software developers kit that will help programmers get used to making things for Android phones.
The company also announced $10 million in prizes for developers who build great Android programs. The Android Developers Challenge offers 50 prizes of $25,000 each for the best programs submitted by March 3; some among those 50 will then go on to compete for greater prizes of $100,000 and $275,000.
Though this isn't a huge sum for Google -- we're talking fewer than 15,000 shares of Google stock here -- the prize is sure to spur at least a few clever comp-sci grads to drop everything and build Android's first great app. The third-party apps will be crucial to the system's success, because judging by the video of a couple of prototype phones that Google put out today (see above), Android, as it stands now, looks rather bland.
Bland, I mean, compared to the iPhone. To which it will inevitably be compared.
Alongside such user-interface laggards as Motorola's RAZR, Android looks nice -- it's got a fully functional Web browser (based on WebKit, the same framework that Apple's Safari uses), and it can take advantage of fast 3G networking, a touch-screen interface, and 3-D graphics (allowing it to run video games like "Quake").
But nothing in the demo wows you. Nothing makes you want to run out and get an Android phone today.
But come next year, when the first Android phones are expected to go on sale, maybe that all will change. By then Google will have dished out millions to programmers to come up with something fantastic for the system. By then it may have created a killer phone.