Android: Why Google's cellphone software is making waves

Google is extending its influence into the cellphone market with the release of the first handset based on its Android software.

What is Android?

Google's Android is an operating system for mobile phones, similar to how Windows or Leopard are operating systems for PC and Macintosh computers. Android provides the base on which other software on the phone works. Design of the operating system was originally begun by Andy Rubin, a California-based technology entrepreneur who formed the company Android Inc., which Google bought in 2005. The search-engine company announced in November 2007 that it would enter the mobile phone market through Android.

Why did Google buy Android?

Google, the undisputed leader in online search and related advertising, believes that the future of the internet is in cellphones. The company bought Android in an effort to extend its reach from the computer-based internet to the mobile internet.

How is Google getting into the mobile market?

Before the November 2007 announcement, there was much speculation that Google would follow the lead of Apple Inc., which created the massively successful iPhone, with its own mobile device, dubbed the "gPhone." Google surprised the industry by announcing it was not producing its own phone, but rather providing the operating system backbone for other phones.

What advantages does Android have?

Android is based on open-source Linux software that Google is giving free to cellphone makers. That means a manufacturer such as Samsung or Motorola does not have to pay any upfront fee for the software, nor does it have to pay any licence costs. Makers of proprietary mobile operating systems, such as Microsoft Corp., charge cellphone manufacturers for the software, which raises the cost of each handset. That charge generally results in a higher price for the phone, which is passed on to the consumer.

What disadvantages does Android have?

Android's limitations remain to be seen, but the system has already been criticized for not being truly open-source. Google has been criticized for trying to control the system even though the company says it is completely open.

What will Android mean for the average user?

Android is intended to spur non-voice data uses of cellphones, including web surfing, e-mail and geo-location. Google has also announced the Android Marketplace, where users will be able to download software applications, many of them free, for their Android phones. These applications will range from games to navigation tools to travel guides and other reference software.

Besides Google, who else is backing Android?

Along with announcing Android in November 2007, Google also unveiled the Open Handset Alliance, a group of technology companies, cellphone carriers and manufacturers that shared its vision of mobile devices that are more open to users. T-Mobile in the United States is the first cellphone carrier to deploy an Android phone, the Dream, made by Taiwanese manufacturer HTC. Other carriers that are part of the alliance are China Mobile, Japan's KDDI and NTT DoCoMo, Sprint Nextel in the United States, Telecom Italia and Spain's Telefonica. Handset makers include HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung, while technology partners include Intel and Qualcomm. Notably absent from the alliance is the world's largest cellphone carrier, Vodafone, and the biggest handset manufacturer, Nokia, not to mention all of Canada's existing service providers: Bell, Rogers and Telus.

Why have some carriers and manufacturers chosen not to join Google's alliance?

Android is a threat to some companies because it gives consumers the freedom to download any applications they want onto their cellphones, thus allowing them to circumvent carriers' tight locks on devices. The companies that did join Google's alliance were convinced that they will be able to earn more revenue from signing up a large number of customers to cheap data plans than they would from charging high fees to a relatively small number of users. Nokia, for its part, has its own competing operating system, Symbian, and recently announced that it too would be open-source and free to use.

Who else will Android phones compete with?

Google's phones are another step toward transforming the cellphone market to a "smartphone" market, where every device is designed for internet usage. Phones using Google's software will therefore compete with those using Microsoft's Windows Mobile, Nokia's Symbian, Apple's iPhone, and Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry, as well as a handful of other smaller players.

When will we see Android phones in Canada?

Existing carriers are unlikely to introduce any Google phones in the near future. Some of Canada's potential new cellphone companies — Globalive, Quebecor, Shaw, Bragg and Data-Audio Visual Enterprises — may offer them when they begin operations in 2009.