Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Do Androids dream of Electric Phones?

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about Google’s new mobile phone platform, called Android. The first Android phone has just gone on sale in the US. It’s a very interesting move by Google and will probably result in dropping mobile phone prices. Can’t be bad.

Read on for my speaking notes, or download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Sound clip – 21 seconds from “Blade Runner”, supplied as seenthings.mp3

Q: And you’re going to tell us why you played that clip?

A: Ah yes, it’s a bit of tortured link. That was of course from the film Blade Runner – it’s the final speech of the humanoid robot which has been hunted through the film. In Blade Runner, and in the Philip K Dick novel the film is based on, they use the term “replicant” for the robot because you can’t tell it from a person. Most other science fiction uses the term “android” – and that’s the name of Google’s new mobile phone platform.

Q: So the android is a phone?

A: No, it’s a platform. We’ve talked before how, with smart phones, there are a few groups of phones which will run programs that can be added to the phone later – and these programs need to be written for the correct group. So, if you write something for, say, the Symbian operating system which powers a lot of high end Nokias, it won’t run on the iPhone, or the Blackberry, or Windows Mobile, without a lot of surgery. Each of those groups of phones forms a smart phone platform.

Q: So the Android is one of those?

A: Yes. It’s not a phone – although you can buy a phone running Android now – its effectively a piece of software, an operating system, and a specification for the hardware manufacturers to build to. And Google has released the software – the Android operating system free – it did that a little while ago. What has just happened is that the first phone built using the Android operating software has come onto the market.

Q: So how does this differ from, say, the iPhone?

A: It’s a completely open platform. The iPhone is quite locked down so only Apple can approve programs that work on it. So, third parties can and do write programs to run on the iPhone, Apple gets to approve whether they can run on iPhones. Apple say they do that for quality control purposes, and its clear from applications that they have rejected that quality control is part of it, but also Apple are rejecting anything they think competes with their own software. They won’t approve a music player, for instance, because the iPhone has Apple’s own iPod and iTunes software built into it. So this means that Apple are keeping a tight grip on the platform.

Q: Is that bad?

A: It’s a interesting business decision. It means that Apple gets tighter control over the quality of the user experience that iPhone users have. The initial reviews of the first Android phone are saying things like: competent, but lacks the “wow” factor. If there’s something Apple does well, it’s the “wow” factor. And perhaps keeping control on the platform allow it to deliver that. But Apple is gambling that it can maintain that edge over a completely open platform that Google is offering, whicbh enables people to right programs that will do just about anything on your mobile phone if you want it to. I don’t know how that’s going to pan out.

There are other phone platforms, of course, like Symbian, now owned by Nokia and which has recently gone open source. They are obviously worried about Google’s arrival and they are trying to capitalize on the innovation you get off an open platform.

The real significance of Android is that mobile phone manufacturers are going to find themselves choosing between doing software and doing hardware. Hardware is pretty much a commodity business and margins will be under real pressure. Software will be written by a huge variety of people, and much of it will be free or cheap. So, this is bad news for the higher end phone manufacturers like Nokia, and perhaps for Blackberry, but its good for us consumers. I just love the way the price of toys comes down every year!


First reactions to the first Android telephone.

The Guardian on Google’s open approach versus Apple’s “walled garden”.

posted by colin at 10:11 pm  

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