Rich Miner, Google’s general manager of wireless platforms, spoke about the company’s approach to the cell phone market and about progress the company has made in developing its Android open platform for smart phones.
Miner opened the second day of the eComm conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. During Q&A, he noted that he has seen prototypes from every mobile phone partner in the platform, which was announced in November. Instead of having carrier executives decide which applications are best for users, the big companies should embrace the “long tail,” the notion popularized by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson that suggests the web enables consumers to choose what they want.
Miner said that while he was still working for French phone company Orange about three years ago, it was still hard to get together with carriers to enable new applications on Orange’s own phones.
He talked about how inflexible today’s cell phones are. Most of the phones aren’t smart, meaning that developers can’t create third-party applications for the vast majority of phones in the world. He said that the lack of openness means that the dynamic world of mash-ups on the web just isn’t possible with phones.
“The phones have closed, native environments that make it very difficult for applications developers to do what they want to do,” he said. “The business models in mobile are also somewhat broken.”
Developers have to work closely with carriers to get applications on a phone and generate revenues from those applications.
Thankfully, Miner said, the world is shifting to openness, even in mobile phones. Linux-based phones have hit the market, Apple has created excitement around the iPhone, and there is excitement about Google’s Android platform. Phones based on Android are expected to ship later this year. Those phones will be more useful to consumers, he says, because they will be built around openness and thus have access to a wealth of third-party applications. Even Apple has moved in this direction of opening up to third parties with the latest iPhone SDK release.
“Apple still, because of their business models and their partnerships, lots of people believe there are control issues with them,” he said. “I’m not going to go into that. But the point is they made a big leap forward.”
Android is a complete platform, not just a phone operating system, and with it Google has created the Open Handset Alliance with a large number of partners. It has launched its software development kit and he said it has received rave reviews. It is actively encouraging developers to build apps.
“Android is everything you need to develop a phone, not just an OS,” he said. “There are virtual machines, graphics subsystems, media codecs, media frameworks, application frameworks — all integrated into Android.”
That entire stack will be open sourced when the first handset launches, he said. It’s based on Linux. But Android’s libraries and other elements extend beyond what is available for Linux already. The partners include everyone from chips set makers to carriers. Google is holding a competition and giving prizes to the best third-party app developers who can ready their software for launch day.
Does Android fragment the world more? There are other Linux initiatives. But he said that the problem is that there are too many different versions that fracture the base of developers.
“Unless somebody really took everything, built it, and released it as open source, it wouldn’t help,” he said. “We integrated all the things you need in one platform.”
He said Google is working with carriers to open their networks and open their phones and drive down the costs of cell phones. How is it being received? About 750,000 people have downloaded the SDK.
“Lots of people are building apps,” he said. Also, he noted, the carriers are starting to fight with each other about which one is the most open. Verizon is about to launch its specs for open handsets. The carriers are embracing openness for market reasons, he said. Full HTML capable web browsers will be available on these phones and display content that can be viewed easily on a small screen.
In Q&A, he said any type of phone could be built with Android, including simple phones that have prepaid plans and are used in poor countries. The phone makers simply have to strip out a lot of the features to get down to the basics, if they want.
Another audience member asked what if people want to change what Google has chosen to put in the stack. Miner said a lot of people with expertise outside of Google helped create the stack to make decisions about what should be in the platform.
“Everybody is helping in a very collaborative effort,” he said. “We’re building this as a well-engineered and designed system.”
Asked how many Android phones will be in the market a year from now, Miner said it was hard to say but that the number of companies creating Android phones has grown and he has seen prototypes from every one of the OEMs and ODMs (original device manufacturers who make phones for other brands).
As to whether the developer community should build apps for the iPhone or Android, he said, “It depends on what you want to build.” There are a lot of restrictions on Apple applications, he said. “You have to decide if it allows you to do what you want.” Android, he said, will be available on a much wider number of phone platforms and models.