The smoke has finally begun to settle. At times it reached almost fever pitch. Rumours that this was going to be the big shake-up the industry needed were followed, as reality set in, by sobering recognition of the challenges that lie ahead (and a scratching of heads as people tried to fill in much of the missing detail). Yes, this week Google decided time was right to officially show its intent, setting its sights squarely at the mobile industry and announcing not the much-hyped GPhone but Android, a new open mobile platform. As mobile continues to hot up, one of the biggest guns of them all has joined the battlefield and fired an early warning shot.
It’s been interesting to read through some of the comments over the week, both on international news sites and in the blogosphere. All is not well. Not only are we starved of some crucial detail but this has created a secondary problem of contradiction. On the detail side, for example, the SDK (Software Development Kit) isn’t being released until next week, and then it’s only an initial tentative sneak of what’s to come (“Comments welcome”, as the website says). The SDK is going to be rather important since it will dictate the nature of the open development which Android will live or die by. On the confusion side, we have headlines such as “Will GPhone kill off the iPhone?”. As far as I can tell, there really isn’t going to be a GPhone as such – Android is a software platform, an operating system, and environment. Unless we find out to the contrary (and let’s be honest, we don’t really know a huge amount yet) Google aren’t going to be branding any phones and certainly not designing any. As things currently stand Google will have as much control over the hardware their platform runs on as Microsoft do over the design of PC’s and laptops – in other words, not much. I doubt the iPhone has much to worry about quite yet. (Recall: Wasn’t Zune meant to be the iPod killer?).
Announcements about Linux-based open mobile initiatives, which Android is, are not new. There have been a number this year already, and Android joins a growing list which includes the likes of LiMo, OpenMoko and Qtopia. Analysts do seem to agree that Linux has a huge role to play in the future of mobile, but whether Google’s approach is going to be the breakthrough they believe is needed only time will tell. Yes, they may have an impressive list of around 30 partners, but many of these either aren’t doing particularly well right now, or are bit-part players in the mobile space. Nokia, the company with the dominant market share, and a vested interest in its own Symbian platform (technically an Android competitor) is conspicuous by its absence.
In the area where I spend most of my time – the use of mobiles for social and environmental benefit in the developing world – I have seen similar excitement at the announcement, with hopes that Android will open up a new world of opportunity for the community. Again, few people are being particularly specific about what this opportunity is, what it might look like and what problems it might end up solving. There is just a general hope that something good might come out of this. I wonder.
What is it, for example, that we can’t do now? What is it that we want to do which can’t be done with a combination of some of today’s tools, such as – say – SMS and Java? (Interestingly, Java is slated to play a key role in the Android platform). They’re pretty powerful and, although restrictive to a degree, many of the great things that have been going on in the “mobile for good” space lately have centred around one or the other. They’re both widely available, too – every phone out there can handle SMS, and a reasonable number of those can also run Java applications. Text messages are being used for all manner of communication – health messages, education, job postings and election monitoring among many others – and Java-based applications are enabling data collection and educational game development. Sure, we need to “think out of the box” and, more often than not many of the best ideas emerge that way. But we can think out of the box at any time, and should certainly never do it from a technology perspective. We shouldn’t approach this from the “What can Android do for us?” angle.
As far as I’m concerned, you start with an understanding of a ‘problem’, an understanding of the users and the environment, and consideration of the technology comes at the end. And, if it turns out that there’s not a viable, sustainable, appropriate technology-based solution to that problem then so be it. There won’t always be.
Android is only likely going to run on high-end devices such as smart phones. If we’re thinking about putting socially and economically empowering applications in the hands of the masses – and in this context I mean the couple of billion people at the bottom of the pyramid – then they’re going to need to have one of these phones. That might be a problem for quite some time to come, maybe even years. If, however, you have a nice control group – say fifty nurses who travel to remote clinics on a weekly basis – it’s not going to be too much trouble equipping them with a bunch of these handsets and running a neat health-based application on them. This is already being done in a number of countries and in a number of areas outside health, too.
We’re still about a year away from seeing anything running on an Android-powered device, and it may be at least another year or more before people sitting at the bottom of the economic pyramid start to own them in any significantly useful numbers. In the meantime there is plenty we can be getting on with.
Let’s face it, we’re only really beginning to scratch the surface with the tools we’ve already got.