Monday, November 5, 2007

Google's Android approach threatens no less than the personal computer itself

Google's announcement of mobile software platform Android pretty much disrupts and disintermediates a large swath of the edge of the Internet that connects via closed, non-PC devices to ... well, a fairly limited amount of content, apps, and data.

Google with Android and the Open Handset Alliance, however, may blow open a marketplace through a common open platform that can then provide a lot more content, apps, data, media, and services. And that will feed the demand by developers, users, and ultimately advertisers that open platforms be provided on mobile devices.

At the same time, the boundaries between laptop, PC, converged device, entertainment device are eroding and blurring. What will determine what the use will be for the content and apps, the services and the media? Not the location. Not the network. As the device user goes, so goes the options for its use. As long as there is broadband, a critical mass of apps and open services -- the device can be the size of an iPhone and do it all.

And that gives it serious advantages over a PC. The PC is locked down, and not nearly as versatile as a fully open, full-function mobile converged device. What's more, the services and content will begin to matter more, and drive the user behavior -- not the device itself, once it's made open (and maybe even free). The business model that favors the media over the closed platform will usually win. The business model that favors the platform over the limited and choked content will not.

Google through the Open Handset Alliance plans on Nov. 12 to unveil an operating system, middleware and mobile applications (and early look at the Android SDK). The goal is to foster ease and volume in binding together content providers and devices aka users. It's write once-run anywhere all over again. Not all the carriers are in, as TechCrunch points out, and most that are come from outside the U.S. where handset choice has been greater.

The crowd of members to the alliance is impressive. It will also be curious to see how Apple groks Android, and if its open API plans will marry or mesh with Open Handset Alliance plans. My guess is that Apple will need to adopt this, but may take its sweet time.

The energy and potential here with Android and community reminds me a lot of Java in the early days, and that's not a surprise given where Google honcho Eric Schmidt spent considerable time in the 1990s: inventing and promoting Java. Eric must love the very notion of "disrupts and disintermediates." Only this time its not to ward off just Microsoft, but to ward off the possibilities of future Microsofts.

No one provider, handset maker, or carrier is a kingmaker in the mobile market, not even Microsoft. The Win-Tel monopoly never made it to the handheld. The mobile market in many regions is unformed enough that Google and its partners can have a chance at keeping it open enough so that the loosely coupled content model may ultimately outshine the current dominant PC model as defined by Microsoft for some 20-plus years.

And the Java connection is more fitting than Eric's dual roles: Android and the Open Handset Alliance may very well presage -- if successful -- the disruption and disintermediation of the PC itself. It also explains why readers think that Java SE (and not ME) on converged devices makes sense.

So over the next couple of years, Android-supported mobile devices will spawn the applications ecology that creates all the hens to lay all the eggs that will best hatch into the chickens that come home to roost. The Google Trojan Horse Android could make it a lot easier for developers to thrive in the mobile space. An open iPhone or similar type of device can grow in its category to encroach on the PC. PCs will become notebook PCs that begin to act a lot more like an Android, or ... lose developer and media outlet (and ad dollars) allegiance.

If my vision is nearly correct (timing is always a tough one to call), more of the content designed for an Android and Open Handset Alliance-type device will also be used on a PC, the UI can be really all about Web services. And Microsoft will, as with the Web, Java, and SaaS, have to capitulate and adopt or support Android.

We're already seeing encroachment of what's known as the converged mobile device -- personified best so far by the Apple iPhone -- into the domain of the PC. If you were to hook up an iPhone to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard ... well, you have a PC. As long as it connects via wireless broadband, uses a browser to reach all the rest of the Google-navigated web content, and Google apps, and Apple's content (per per click) too.

Desktop PCs will be for large enterprises and the un-imaginative. A successful Android approach means that Windows Mobile will face daunting and probably insurmountable odds. It means the Windows PC will face new competition, and not just like Mac OS X -- the Windows franchise will face competition of a categorical nature, a game changer: The open mobile device ecology. And it's because Microsoft was not able to capture enough of the mobile market and lock it into Windows and its Visual Studio developers in time.

As Linux is at the core of Android, there's already an open source approach. That should be extended up and down the Android stack, and also account for a share of the applications. Google should make sure that money can be made by content producers, and that Google's ad revenues are shared, just as with AdSense on the web. Carriers will need to move to these Android devices and find a model based on content subscription and use. In effect, the mobile platform goes to the Internet model, and not just for limited browsers use.

The Google Android platform and the Apple iPhone have a lot in common. In effect, the two global innovators of Apple and Google are placing different bets on diverging paths to a similar end point. As such, they probably are complementary in the long run. And that spells trouble for Microsoft, the mobile carriers, and the closed handset makers.

It's also possible that Apple's best interests and Google's will diverge at some later point. How open will they go? If it threatens the PC, it could also mean Apple's platform model comes under pressure.

Meanwhile, however, an Android-supporting iPhone may be about the best mobile experience on the planet for a long time in the not too distant future. Hook it up to a dock and its the best PC experience too. Write once, run anywhere, do anything, anywhere -- that's the potential we're looking at. It's hard to see how a closed Microsoft Windows Everywhere approach -- while still hugely successful on the PC for now -- can lock in at the required level on the mobile device. It's easier to see open mobile devices usurping the PC.


  1. Dana, I have to disagree with your assessment that "the crowd of members to the alliance is impressive." Neither of the major US carriers is in the alliance, which is no surprise, given how Google made enemies of them this year by favoring FCC constraints on spectrum use. The carriers are still in control, and this doesn't change that. More on my blog at

  2. Yes, Ike, Verizon and at&t not in the group, but we're in a global market here. With enough momentum, the U.S. heel draggers will join. At&t might, curiously, be caught between an Android and an iPhone place.

  3. After all the excitement about the Android platform, a community for Android developers has been set up called which is a central hub where developers can discuss and learn about the Android platform.

    A different site called has also been set up for everyone to discuss anything about Android mobile.

    It looks like theres going to be a lot of talk before we even get the first Android mobile devices in late 2008.

  4. The crowd ain't impressive, and thats what is more interesting about it. The real competition arises when you've a crowd of small players competing against dominacy of few big players. I see it very positively.

    If the alliance is able to come up with a really portable & open standards (which is certainly missing from mobile industry right now), then it will mean a bad time for big players (like Apple), and soon they'll be forced to collaborate.

    - Kazim Zaidi

  5. I've just seen the Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO) and Nigel Clifford (Symbian CEO) speeches about Android ( and they really don't seem to be worried about Android, as we can see in their smiley and calm faces. I think this competition is very healthy to IT market and good to costumers.