Monday, November 5, 2007

gPhone becomes Open Vaporware Alliance

Today Google announced the gPhone. What is it? Yet another version of mobile Linux with yet another trade association —— the Open Handset Alliance — which is led by Google, T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm and Motorola as the major sponsors (in that order according to the press release).

There are so many levels on which I could dissect the announcement, but I still have to keep my day job, so let me mention only a few:

  • Motorola is also a member of the LiMo Foundation, Gnome Mobile and other mobile Linux initiatives, but only some of its allies from these initiatives (Intel, DoCoMo, Samsung) are present here.
  • Google CEO Eric Schmidt bragged that this is not a mere phone (take that, Apple) but a platform: "Today's announcement is more ambitious than any single 'Google Phone' that the press has been speculating about over the past few weeks. ... Our vision is that the powerful platform we're unveiling will power thousands of different phone models."
  • Now we know why Google paid untold billions in July 2005 for Android Inc., the company at the center of Google's new initiative. Co-founders Andy Rubin (who also founded Danger, OS suppliers to Sidekick) and Rich Miner are firm believers in a post-PC world, as evidenced by Miner's quote in the NYT
    "There is a good chance that the number of potential consumers of Google…may never have a PC. ... So one of our clear goals was to find a way and have a platform (to) deliver Google services, Google content and Google search into those markets, and the mobile phone is going to clearly become much more of a development platform."
  • With Qualcomm are its two most bitter US rivals, Broadcom and TI, both of whom would like to destroy its business model.
  • The Japanese carriers represented include both Qualcomm-loyalist KDDI and nemesis DoCoMo. Among CDMA carriers in the US, Sprint is aboard but Verizon is notably absent. Of the three major European carriers, T-Mobile is present but Vodafone and Orange are missing. Other GSM carriers including China Mobile and (in Europe) Telefonica and Telecom Italia, but not AT&T, the only major US GSM carrier.
There are some reasons for skepticism:
  • In addition to the carriers, absent were the major European and Japanese handset makers. In particular, Nokia and Ericsson are firmly committed to the Symbian platform, and even if Google's Web 2.0-enabled vision becomes a reality, can have the best of web- and native-client applications through their existing smartphone investments.
  • The fawning pro-Google euphoria was reminiscent of, well, Apple's iPhone roll-out. Even 10 months ago, Steve Jobs did a demo of his vaporware, and all the OHA had to offer today is a phone call. Plans to ship "second half of 2008" puts them 12-18 months behind the iPhone.
  • Instead of the fawning headlines, the term "open" should have been used in quotes (but then the reporters don't study open standards for a living). This is another pay to play trade association, and right now it's not clear how open it is (although almost any Linux group is more open than LiMo).
There are other holes in the story. Android co-founder Rubin said "We've created the platform to be open source," but most of the platform components and layers (as far as we can tell) existed long before Google/Android came along. Rubin also claimed that the phone is the ultimate Internet phone:
Our partners will say that the phone does the Internet, in a way other phones don't do the Internet. We don't have to brand it. When you walk into the store and see a phone with lots of Net applications, vs. others with hardly any, people will get it very quickly.
Of course, the iPhone also does the Internet (pretty well) and most of Apple's major rivals plan their own mobile web strategy. A year is a long time, and it's now certain Nokia will be ready. Motorola and Samsung are both Symbian and LiMo participants, so maybe they hope someone will give them a first-class mobile web experience.

Embedded Linux is doing what it does best, which is fragment like crazy: 2007 has brought more fragmentation and not less. Maybe Gnome Mobile was going nowhere (the website looks a little stale), but the joint effort of Intel's Moblin and Nokia's Maemo seemed promising both from a business and technical standpoint.


Jeff Waugh said...

Hey Joel,

GNOME Mobile will have a new presence soon, but did you realise that both Maemo and Moblin are substantially based on the GNOME Mobile stack?

In fact the core thing they share, the Hildon user interface architecture, has been contributed to GNOME for inclusion in GNOME Mobile.

I guess the important thing to keep in mind about GNOME Mobile is that we write and ship code, without making a huge fanfare about it. We are very content to be the basis and driving force of the platform for a lot of very successful products. :-)

By the way, you're welcome to get in touch if you ever have queries about GNOME and our Mobile initiative (my contact details are easily found via Google).


- Jeff Waugh

Joel West said...


Sorry to rush -- of course I meant to acknowlege that GMAE is input to a lot of these efforts. That was kinda my point, that a lot is going on using various existing open source code, so it's no clear why the world needs another mobile Linux initiative.

That said, I do find it a big negative that Gnome Mobile has not picked a browser strategy, but instead has two (Mozilla, WebKit) under "consideration." Given the iPhone and S60 are using WebKit, that would appear to be the logical choice. But I guess with Moblin using Mozilla, it's not so clear-cut.

As demonstrated in the Gnome vs. KDE wars, two is not better than one. But one (or two) is much better than none.


Jeff Waugh said...

Very difficult to negotiate the allegiances between the two browsers: We're much closer to Mozilla in spirit, but WebKit has appeared to be a more appropriate choice for us in technology and integration terms.

Nokia have played with both, but are focusing on their own mobile Mozilla codebase at the moment, various other participants are working on our testing WebKit... and then Mozilla finally announced a mobile strategy recently.

So I think having the two 'under consideration' was an astute choice (to wait and watch adoption) under the circumstances. No point backing a horse before it's ready. :-)


- Jeff