I, for One, Welcome Our New Android Overlords
About three weeks ago, T-Mobile launched the first phone running Android, Google’s new, open-source cell phone operating system. A quick search will turn up lots of reviews of this phone and the OS, so if you want a review, go read one of those. I’m more interested in talking about why Android is a Big Deal™. The phone itself (known as the G1) is pretty good, I’ve been using it for about two weeks and liked it, but the phone is not what’s revolutionary, it’s the software. Most people are pretty used to making a distinction between their computer and the software the runs on it (Windows, Firefox, etc.), but that’s not something that we think about with our cellphones. Truthfully, most people probably still won’t make that distinction. But as more and more phones fall into the category of smart phones (like the BlackBerry, iPhone, and G1), we’re likely to see the market center around two or three operating systems for cell phones just like we’ve seen with PCs and laptops. But Walker, you ask, what’s so cool about Android?
The answer is that Android is for cell phones what DOS was for PCs back the mid- to late-80′s. Up until now, cell phones have been very tightly controlled platforms. Each provider doesn’t allow any competition on their phones, so you get one calendar program, one contacts program, and a small selection of games which are rarely any good. Furthermore, everything costs money. Want a new ringtone? That’s $3 per month. New wallpaper? $1 please. Another game to pass the time? $10 for Tic-Tac-Toe. You get few options and with no competition, there’s no incentive to make higher quality or cheaper alternatives, they’re just not allowed. Computers were in a similar state in the 80s. You could build your own and essentially program your whole computer from scratch, similar to the OpenMoko phone now, or you could buy an Apple where everything just worked, but there was only one suite of office programs, one drawing program, and one mail reader. DOS and then Windows challenged this system by making it easy for programmers to create and sell their own applications. When you walked into a software store, you’d see a wall for Apple software with the one option for each niche and then you’d see the rest of the store filled with Windows software with many programs competing to fill each niche. A lot of them were no good and most were incompatible, but then competition forced everyone to get better and have a lower price than anything for Apple computers. Since then, Microsoft has become more Apple-like and Apple has become more Microsoft-like and there are varying opinions on whether or not they’ve switched places yet.
As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, the current cell phone companies are doing what Apple did in the 80s, locking down their platforms and limiting competition. One of them, AT&T, is even pushing this strategy with Apple’s help. The iPhone certainly opened up the cell phone quite a bit. It’s made important early strides in allowing any programmer to write applications for it. However, it is still very locked down. Any program that’s sold through the App Store has to get approved by Apple first. One the one hand, this ensures a relatively high level of quality in the applications available to iPhone users. On the downside, though, Apple can veto any program for any reason or no reason at all. One of the most troubling reasons Apple has used is that a program competes with a program that Apple already created. So you’re not likely to ever see anything other than iTunes and QuickTime running on the iPhone for music and movies even if someone else creates something better. On top of that, the iPhone is only available to AT&T subscribers, so anyone who uses a different cell phone company has seen little if any benefit from the small openness that Apple allows.
Google’s Android is very different. It’s completely open source which means you could, if you were so inclined, go online and download a copy of it, alter it for your needs, and run it on your phone. T-Mobile has already launched their Android phone and Sprint is following with one in the next few months. Other major carriers will likely be launching their own Android phones throughout 2009, so no matter what carrier you have you’re likely to have the option to get an Android phone. That alone means that Android is likely to do more for openness on cell phones than the iPhone has already done. But Android takes it even farther. Every part of Android from the home screen, to the program that dials numbers, to the mapping program can be replaced with programs downloaded from the Android Market. The entire system is modular and the benefits of this can already be seen. Several people have already created applications for Android that let you browse your music library and pick part or all of an mp3 to use as a ringtone. There’s also a great program from MIT that changes your phone’s settings based on things like calendar events and location. So you can have your phone automatically go silent when you get to your office or when your class starts. These are just two examples of great and useful programs that have been created for Android in just a few months and the iPhone doesn’t have equivalents (to my knowledge) and it’s been out for several years. What’s more, both of the Android programs I mentioned are free. The other great thing about the Android Market is that Google doesn’t approve programs before they go up. That means anyone can put a program up there, even if it competes with or replaces one of Google’s programs, and it will succeed if it is actually better. With that, Android now fills the role of DOS and Windows in the early desktop computer software market.
In the next few years, we’re likely to see a revolution in cell phone software as ever more powerful cell phones start to completely replace mp3 players and point-and-shoot cameras. Within 5 years cell phones will likely have replaced laptops as well. Consider that the G1 and the iPhone are both about as powerful as a brand-new desktop computer from Dell 9 or 10 years ago. That’s not to say those computers were great, but that’s a fair amount of power to be carrying in your pocket and cell phones are only going to get more powerful in the coming years. With an open cell phone platform like Android, people finally have control over the phones just like they do over their computers. Increased competition and real choice for users is always a good thing and will help cement the role of cell phones in everyday life. The future of cell phones is finally starting to look bright and I’m excited to see all the cool places they’ll go.