I’m having a little trouble understanding Android; the business side I mean, not the technology.

Technology · It looks like decent enough software, although there is some pretty sharp criticism in Five problems with Google Android. In particular, as a scarred veteran of X Windows programming and one who’s welcoming the introduction of resolution-independence in OS X, I too think it would be wonderful to get past pixel-based imaging models. [Update: the “Five Problems” guy may be wrong on this one.]

Still, if anything can match the iPhone, it’ll be a truly commons-based, radically-open platform.

Licensing and Business · I think that the problem in the mobile space has always been the business model, not the technology. I’ve argued repeatedly that it will never get interesting until the mobile network operators relax their death-grip on the customer relationship, open the networks and devices, and focus on their core competences: bandwidth and billing. The technology hasn’t been that great, but it hasn’t been that bad. My perfectly decent little Samsung phone, with a truly great screen, has Java and lots of other goodness, but I can’t actually run any programs unless I buy them from the network operator. Oddly, there are no programs for sale that are interesting in the slightest. That’s the problem.

Unless I’m missing something, the big deal with the Java-language-on-another-VM setup seems to be about using the Apache license, as opposed to the Sun version’s GPL. Which means (and once again, I may be missing something) that any old cellphone maker can take the Android software and build another locked-down control-freak phone just like my Samsung.

So what’s the point?

As a Sun shareholder, sure, I’d like our technology on those mobile devices. But as a Sun shareholder, I see another huge upside in the mass of server infrastructure everyone will need when the network operators unclench and we get an explosion of creativity and Mobile/Internet apps. So if Android will do that, it’d be hard to be against it. Will Android do that? Why?

Disclosure · Like it says on the front page of ongoing, I do not speak for Sun except when I say I am. In this particular matter, not only do I not speak for Sun, I have no idea what our official position on Android is, I’m not in that loop, nor have I read the legal Android fine print, nor have I downloaded the software.


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From: John Wilson (Nov 21 2007, at 01:00)

A GPLed JVM is neither necessary nor sufficient to make service providers open up their service.

Firstly, the Sun JDK is dual licensed. A phone manufacturer would be able to buy a proprietary licence from Sun and then treat the code in exactly the same way as they would treat an Apache licensed JVM.

Secondly, having full access to the source code does not mean that you have control of what runs on the phone. As the manufacturer has full control over the hardware platform he is perfectly able to restrict what is loaded onto the system. Certainly somebody will discover how to hack the device but that's not enough to make the platform open. I can run Linux on my iPod but that doesn't make it an open platform.

Google seem to be trying to use persuasion plus threats to get the service providers to open up their services. If Google do end up owning a great hunk of spectrum in the USA then they will be in a very strong position to influence the way that wireless services are provided.

This problem is not going to be solved by technology or by licensing but by economics.


From: John burton (Nov 21 2007, at 01:16)

I'm not quite sure what you mean about locked down phones. I have a nokia n73 and a HTC TyTn and I can install whatever software I like on either without my operator knowing, let alone caring.


From: Michael Neale (Nov 21 2007, at 01:22)

There is also Open Moko - which I guess is a whole phone platform (not sure of its connection to Sun's plans for JavaFX). Open Moko seems to be the only thing currently out their that aims to be open all the time for all users.

Still, nice to see stuff happening.


From: Joshua E Cook (Nov 21 2007, at 05:29)

“Still, if anything can match the iPhone, it’ll be a truly commons-based, radically-open platform.”

Really? That sounds nice, but has it ever happened before? Is there any historical example of an open, common platform upsetting a well-established proprietary one? Linux certainly hasn’t upset Microsoft Windows—its market share is barely 1 in 20. Firefox is growing, but with a market share of roughly 1 in 5, still far from matching Microsoft Internet Explorer.

The poster-children for the Open movement, e.g. Apache and Wikipedia established themselves with virtually no competition.

Could we say the same about Web communities? Will an open, common social platform, i.e. Google’s OpenSocial, be able to upset the likes of Facebook and Myspace?

What about web search? Would an open, common search platform be able to upset Google?


From: len (Nov 21 2007, at 07:14)

It will be interesting to see if the casual games market begins to break the moldy wall around mobile apps. I've seen GPS/3D city apps based on X3D that can do this. In a week or so, we release an app for pushing alerts to cellphones using pretty dumb formats but it all works. So the not-deep take is that as the complexity goes up, the ubiquity falls and that isn't surprising.

Consider the PC gaming space where gamers prefer to buy dedicated consoles. Radical openness doesn't seem to affect anything unless it is accompanied by radical uniqueness of content. As long as the costs are in the comfort zone of enough buyers, they tolerate closed systems with good applications. Some lack or coverage gap has to really irritate them to change that.

Consider: HTML is usually presented as the exemplar for openness and success based on openness but was it really? IOW, at the time what other choices were offered that were realistic on the Internet? Timing, dumb luck and as you've pointed out, view source, had more to do with it and the fact that the early adopters were almost all comp-sci geeks. For the cellphone market, there is no equivalent demographic except perhaps gamers.


From: Daniel (Nov 21 2007, at 14:15)

Hey Tim,

"In particular, as a scarred veteran of X Windows programming and one who’s welcoming the introduction of resolution-independence in OS X, I too think it would be wonderful to get past pixel-based imaging models."

I don't get it. The basic Android 'Canvas' [1] uses float coordinates throughout and has a current transformation matrix. Looks suspiciously like the rather standard, PostScript/PDF-like 2D scalable API to me.

Not to mention that it seems to come with OpenGL ES (the mobile variant), and from some of the hints in the videos it sounds like they may use accelerated 3D for fast 2D/3D compositing, just like Apple's Quartz.

So... Tim, what's missing, in your opinion?

[1] http://code.google.com/android/reference/android/graphics/Canvas.html


From: Tim (Nov 21 2007, at 14:50)

Hey Daniel, looks like you may be right; I hadn't fact-checked the "Five Problems" guy.

I poked around those API docs and didn't actually manage to dig up the semantics of those "x" and "y" arguments to all the Canvas methods. (Hmm, shouldn't that be "x" and "z"?) Anyhow, if they've gone resolution-independent, that's great.


From: Hugh Fisher (Nov 21 2007, at 15:43)

I think the business plan is for Google to become the Microsoft of mobile phones, with their partners in the OHA playing the part of IBM PC compatible manufacturers.

While Google have a lot of companies signed up to the OHA, they're not big names like Nokia. That's a disadvantage now in market presence/influence, but for Google it means that none of these companies are strong enough to argue with them.

The programming contest will help establish Android as a standardised platform. Google would hope for a killer app, but more likely they will settle for half a dozen or so reasonably innovative new phone apps. Since nobody actually has an Android phone to develop on, they'll be written against the Android API as shipped. These apps will be promoted before the actual phones are released to build up demand. When the actual hardware ships, it had better run those apps exactly as specified or it will be dead in the water.

The platform may be "open source" but I doubt that any of the participants will dare changing anything.


From: Jon Ellis (Nov 21 2007, at 17:58)

I wrote this little screed over a year ago, at a time when i was still relatively close to the action... i've just re-read it and still think it's close to being current.


From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Nov 21 2007, at 20:57)

Hey, maybe I'm not as well-informed on this as I could or should be (feel free to tell me so) -- but why doesn't someone implement a UI in SVG or something similar?

I realize that bitblt-ing all over the place is probably faster - but hey, we're already using non-hardware-level languages like Java, and several layers of software extraction, so the processors must be capable of making an interpreted thing like SVG seem fast enough.


From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Nov 22 2007, at 07:01)

Sigh - in my post please replace 'software extraction' with 'software abstraction'.

I meant the latter, I typed the former, for no reason that I can fathom.


From: Anonymouse (Nov 27 2007, at 20:02)

@Josh: "Is there any historical example of an open, common platform upsetting a well-established proprietary one?"

The Internet the perfect example. An open platform that beat the established players (AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, BIX).

Linux has displaced all the other players in the supercomputer market. (See top500.org)


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