Here comes Android riding an open source wave
Last Updated November 6, 2007
By Jesse Hirsh
Jesse Hirsh is a broadcaster, researcher and internet consultant based in Toronto. He appears regularly on CBC Newsworld and CBC radio, writes for CBCNews.ca and hosts an interfaith TV show called 3D Dialogue for OMNI/Rogers.
Monday's announcement of the Open Handset Alliance and the Android Open Source mobile platform is more than just a wake-up call for the cellphone market.
Spearheaded by Google, it marks a significant shift away from personal computing to an age of network computing in which mobile devices are going to be our primary means of accessing information. Instead of storing our information and files on personal computers, everything in this new age will be stored on network servers.
Mobile devices will allow us not only to connect to this information, but also to migrate the information to other screens such as our televisions, automobiles or displays in our workplaces. The Android mobile platform will drive the phones themselves and the OpenSocial platform promises to unite applications on the web into a social operating system that places an emphasis on organizing and developing relationships instead of just managing information. Combined, these two developments mark the real rise of social networking, with the mobile device at the centre of our personal communications.
It will be the equivalent of the old-school Rolodex, only our contact entries will include more than just phone numbers — they'll have dynamically updated profiles with multimedia, location information and more connections that weave our contacts into a broader set of communities and professional networks.
New generation of phones
The problem with cellphones as they exist is they are primarily designed for one-to-one direct communication rather than one-to-many and many-to-many network-based features. Therefore one of the primary features of this new platform will be advanced and integrated data services.
Take the address book, for example. Instead of just names and numbers, it could also include photos and information automatically downloaded from Facebook, as well as maps and satellite imagery of a person's home and work obtained from Google Maps and Google Earth. Another way to think of the difference is instead of the internet being someplace separate that we connect to only when we're near a computer, these devices will create a permanent link so that the internet is always accessible, ubiquitous and part of every interaction we have with the world.
The separation between the virtual and the real dissolves, since our mobile devices maintain a permanent link to cyberspace. Another difference between existing phones and this new mobile platform will be the ability to simultaneously communicate with multiple people. This may be via shared chatrooms or conference calls or mobile video broadcasts to all your friends. I suspect the notion of calling someone will slowly be replaced with the reality that you're always in contact and all you have to do is speak and they will hear you.
So instead of dialing a number, one day in the not-too-distant future, you may just cycle through your phone's social network list, find the picture of the person you want to speak with and then speak — and their device will deliver the message live or store it for later if the person is busy.
Technological milestoneThe reason this announcement heralds such a seismic shift in the way mobile devices are developing is that Google is embracing the Open Source movement and aligning itself with the Open model of technology development.
The Open Handset Alliance is an impressive group of 33 large corporations that Google has brought together to support an entirely open format of mobile computing. The combination of all these corporations and their combined resources, coupled with the momentum and speed at which the Open Source model can be employed, means that we will see the rate of change increase substantially when it comes to mobile technology. There are several reasons and benefits to Google going this route — the company is not supporting free and open software out of strictly moral or altruistic reasons. Its embrace of Open Source fits right into its existing business strategy. Google's business model is based on advertising. This new mobile platform allows it to integrate both its online services as well as its advertising system into each device that is created using this technology.
Google has struck deals with all the carriers in the Alliance to share advertising revenue. By helping to create and maintain free software and free technology, Google will undercut its competition and use advertising, which is its strength, as the basis for generating revenue, thereby shifting the wireless industry from a usage-based subscription payment system to one in which service is usage-free and subsidized by advertising. The business model of the internet is all about leveraging the wisdom and power of the masses. In adopting an open source model of development, Google ensures that the internet community will do the heavy lifting, creating and inventing imaginative new applications to run on this platform. Innovation also works in unpredictable ways and often the most successful ventures come from amateurs and people outside of the traditional centres of power. Thus by using an open system, Google increases its proximity to the sources of new ideas and potential uses of its mobile platform in original and creative ways.
New battle linesIt's also worth pointing out that this is the operating system that Google will use to compete with Microsoft and to a lesser extent Apple.
For that matter, almost all of the companies in the Open Handset Alliance share in common with Google the need to compete with Microsoft, Apple, Nokia, Palm, and Research in Motion — the reigning titans of the wireless industry. This allows them to play both sides, making sure one dominant player does not emerge, as it did with Microsoft in the personal computing market.
Certainly trends in Japan have signalled that the age of the personal computer is coming to an end, as for the last five consecutive quarters, PC sales in the country have declined. The computational power of phones and gaming systems are such today that you really don't need a desktop or laptop computer to do a lot of traditional "computing" work anymore.
Increasingly phones are becoming control devices that allow media to be moved from the internet to television, hopefully one day replacing all the remote controls for home entertainment that become lost in between the cushions.
What used to be a personal computer is increasingly becoming a dumb terminal, just a keyboard and monitor to allow us to connect to the larger network that houses our data and applications.
Everyone who has a BlackBerry already knows the feeling of always being connected and being able to surf the web from the palm of your hand.
The vanguard of technology users who have started using the iPhone also know and see the potential of having your computer in your pocket.
Now with Google putting its muscle into the mix, expect a whole new set of mobile devices and applications to emerge, each pushing us further into the new world of social network computing.
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