Much of the iPod’s success, says Steve Jobs, is down to the fact that Japanese consumer electronics companies don’t produce elegant software. He makes the same accusation of handset makers too. They can do hardware but they “just can’t seem to get the software right.” Enter Android, Google’s open source OS, which although explicitly designed to deliver better software for Internet-connected cellphones, will also soon find its way onto all manner of devices.
“Over the last few weeks I have learned that numerous companies are tinkering with Android in an attempt to get the OS to power a whole slew of gadgets — everything from set-top boxes to navigation systems to mobile Internet devices to smart picture frames”, reports Om Malik.
Motorola have already confirmed that it has at least one Android-powered handset in the pipeline, but the company is also a major player in the television set-top box space and is said to be exploring the potential of Android in the living room too. Malik also says he’s heard from “fairly reliable sources” that two large PC makers are experimenting with Android-based Internet devices. None of which I find surprising. From both a technical and business point of view, Google has laid the foundations for Android to move quickly beyond its cellphone roots and, the company hopes, eventually become a ubiquitous platform.
Technology-wise, as Om notes, Android is “not just an operating system, but comes with middleware and key applications”, not least a robust mobile web browser – and a key factor in Google’s commitment to Android – along with the ability to handle 2D and 3D graphics, and various audio, video and image files. I’d also add into the mix location-based APIs and Google Maps, and an already growing library of third-party software and extensions, much of which will be open source in themselves.
While on the business side, the decision to make Android’s source code freely available to hardware makers at no cost isn’t enough in itself, Google’s choice of open source license makes it particularly attractive to consumer electronics companies who want to use Android to power new devices but in a way that will allow them to maintain control and differentiate their wares from competitors. Under the free-wheelin’ Apache license, device makers are free to make their own changes to the OS, such as altering the User Interface or adding new functionality, without submitting those changes back to the open source community, which would also include their competitors.
All of which, as Om says, makes it hard not to get excited about the potential of Android, despite being available today on only one handset and through one carrier. For every consumer electronics market, however small, that you’d like Apple to enter but which they likely won’t, we can probably expect multiple Android-powered offerings to try to fill the void.
On that note, however, a word of warning. Apple’s strength has always been its ability to control the whole user experience through the marriage of software and hardware. Or as User Interface pioneer Alan Kay once said, and Jobs likes to quote, “people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” Google’s making a different bet that, with their help at least, people who are serious about hardware no longer need to make their own software.