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Android -- Google's throw-away mobile operating system

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 20 Nov 2007.

For months there were rumors in the mobile industry that Google was going to launch a phone, until Google dispelled them with the announcement of the Android platform two weeks ago. What they are doing is basically to build an operating system for mobile devices (an alternative to Symbian and Windows Mobile), and to make it freely available. But why?

“So what is in it for Google? Why would it go to the expense of building and supporting a fully-fledged mobile OS and then give it away with very few restrictions on its usage? […] Its [Google’s] primary objective is simply to catalyse internet usage on mobile devices by ensuring as many as possible can support web services. Android is a means to an end. By doing some of the hard work on their behalf, Google is hoping it will encourage handset manufacturers and network operators to extend internet connectivity to more mobile users, more quickly.”

Marek Pawlowski, PNM

Marek has got it spot on: discussions on the technical details of the platform really miss the point. It isn’t even particularly important whether Android will end up being installed on any significant percentage of devices. What is important is the signalling effect to the world: the mobile web is coming, the mobile web is a huge opportunity.

Most current mobile phones are not particularly strong on the mobile web front, whereas Android places its greatest emphasis on web-based services. That’s in Google’s interests, because it enables people to use Google’s web services while mobile, which continues to drive their advertising revenues. However, but it also benefits everybody else who wants to provide services on the mobile web.

Building a mobile OS is a very difficult and expensive job, but Google are willing to do it anyway, just to encourage the mobile web to develop a tiny bit faster. That shows just how important and huge the mobile web is going to be.

As a developer I am not particularly interested in Android. I’ve not even downloaded the SDK, because I don’t want to write applications – it’s just yet another platform besides the many ones already out there. What I am interested in is the web as a platform – Ajax, SVG and Flash enable most of the richness of traditional applications, but are much easier to develop, and more importantly, much easier to get out to users. No downloads, no installations and such nonsense – just immediate use.

So in a bizarre and twisted way, by adding another OS-level platform to the market (Android), Google are actually encouraging people to move away from both Android and the other mobile OSes, and to move towards the web as a platform. One could therefore argue that the purpose of Android is to make itself obsolete (hence the slightly provocative title of this post). But that doesn’t mean it’s bad – to the contrary, I am very supportive of Android for precisely the reasons explained above.

“Will Google end up capturing the lion’s share of the value in the mobile business by dominating mobile advertising?”

There is certainly a fair chance that Google will take a large chunk of the mobile advertising market. But let’s remember that although it has fuelled a lot of recent growth, advertising is not the only business model on the web! The business models which have worked fine for centuries – such as buying goods and selling them for a higher price – have not suddenly gone away. There is a lot more value in the mobile business if e-commerce is taken into consideration.