Could Google’s Android Be The Cellphone Savior?

Written by Evan Schuman
November 7th, 2007

Much has been written this week that’s critical of Google’s Smartphone Consortium effort. What those critics don’t see is the sorry state of today’s cellphone market.

For years, American technology leaders have gotten used to seeing the U.S. no longer globally technologically dominant. But nowhere is that lack-of-dominance more pronounced than with cellphone technology.

Whether it’s interacting with digital signage, communicating with stores about inventory or paying with products directly with RFID chip-embedded phones, cellphones are proving to be clever and adapt communication tools in key parts of Europe and Asia—but not here.

With mobile payment, for example, the blame is placed on the U.S. mobile market’s structure, with banks much more dominant overseas. Here, it’s the cellphone carriers that own the landscape and call the shots.

That’s why I saw this week’s Google Android news as something that was exciting in its potential to shake the industry up. Trust me: this is one sector that truly needs a lot of shaking up.

The key question, though, is whether Google and the initial 34 members of the Open Handset Alliance will be able to indeed do that shaking? (By the way, can you please tell me how Google could simultaneously use such a sci-fi cute OS name as Android and on the same day also rollout out such a dorky and "named by committee" name such as the Open Handset Alliance? Was this designed to establish some sort of equilibrium on the cool/uncool naming scale?)

Yes, the alliance doesn’t have all the key telecom names that would be ideal, but that’s to be expected. Some companies—such as AT&T and Apple-are notoriously nightmarish in these matters. The more important thing is whether the companies they need get have market clout. With T-Mobile, Qualcomm and Motorola on the domestic list—and Telecom Italia, China Mobile, NTT DoCoMo and Telefónica on the non-U.S. one—they have some serious chops in the cellphone space.

But let’s state the obvious: the superstar on the list is Google. Does Google itself have the market clout to drive this effort? With control of so much of the world’s data—and the world’s advertising—there’s little I would put beyond their potential.

The U.S. mobile market today gives companies two less-than-ideal alternatives when trying to create mobile functionality. It can either go the app approach or the browser approach.

The app approach forces the consumer to download—or to have pre-installed—a small applet onto the phone. The Chief Pro: the final result should look exactly as the designers intended. The Chief Con: Limits the audience size to those whose OS and platform are compatible with the applet.

The browser approach is almost the opposite. Its potential audience size is all-but-infinite, but it requires the company to create another version of their Web site that would work well in the very screen-, RAM-, hard-disk- and connection-limited mobile world. The practical reality is to program to the lowest common denominator for all mobile OS and platform options.

Neither are especially attractive options, but it’s all that exists for today’s company that wants to do mobile programming. This is where Android starts to look good. The group is creating a software developer’s kit—to be released next week—that would support open source programming that would sit atop the platform. Truth be told, few companies today want to be in the mobile OS business. That’s not where the money is. Will the Palm OS even exist in two years? Seen a lot of cutting-edge work being done on Microsoft CE? Blackberry has some staying power but the OS is also not their passion. Apple’s iphone OS? I’ve given up trying to predict Apple.

To be fair, Google doesn’t exactly want to be in the mobile OS business, either, but they have their eyes on a huge mobile advertising market. That’s a market that nobody can touch until the U.S. mobile market gets cleaned up.

Am I suggesting that Android will work and will somehow deliver great things by the end of next year, as they’ve promised? Not necessarily. But I still hold out a lot of hope, given how much this industry needs. Not so sure that necessity is the mother of invention. I’ve always felt that unrestrained avarice always did that job so much better.


One Comment | Read Could Google’s Android Be The Cellphone Savior?

  1. Andy Watt Says:

    I’m interested in the closing message of your article…

    “Am I suggesting that Android will work and will somehow deliver great things by the end of next year, as promised? Not necessarily. But I still hold out a lot of hope, given how much this industry needs it. I’m not so sure that necessity is the mother of invention—I’ve always felt that unrestrained avarice always did that job so much better.”

    I worked in a technical capacity (cell phone protocols) in the European market from 1999 to end-2006 and recently moved out of it, feeling that the whole cellphone concept was drifting without enough direction (is it a cellphone, is it an MP3 player, is it a (god forbid — screen size? Hello?) movie / video portal, where’s my battery gone?) but your statement here shows where the American mobile phone industry in particular went wrong.

    ETSI in Europe (now 3GPP) pursued an agenda of developing a fully specified interoperable standards framework for all elements within mobile networks from the start, continuing for the next 20 years and over that time came up with GSM, GPRS, 3G… etc with all manufacturers onboard. This takes an age (the usual committee thinking) but we ended up with a competitive environment where the manufacturers compete to supply (largely!) interoperable components to mobile networks.

    Contrast this with the American networks, who invented many totally incompatible standards and thought that market forces (the avarice of which you speak) would show who was the fittest… then watch the debacle unfold, resulting in the US ultimately being staggered (especially when visiting Europe) by the roaming capability of mobiles in the rest of the world and picking up the technology in the US (finally!) comparatively recently with guys like Verizon going for GSM/EDGE and even 3G… Even something as simple as receiving a simple text message, which is free in Europe, is apparently charged for the US with some tariffs (this may be old info)? That doesn’t exactly encourage adoption, does it…?

    That avarice you spoke of is what has left the US mobile market in such a horrible mess… do you agree?

    Good article though, I’m very interested to see what the Android API has to offer, having done some programming on the Symbian platform (which was a little painful).


StorefrontBacktalk delivers the latest retail technology news & analysis. Join more than 60,000 retail IT leaders who subscribe to our free weekly email. Sign up today!

Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

Our apologies. Due to legal and security copyright issues, we can't facilitate the printing of Premium Content. If you absolutely need a hard copy, please contact customer service.