Yesterday, Google’s announcement of Android headlined the blogosphere, as much for what it was as for what it wasn’t. For us, Google’s announcement took us a few steps down memory lane, back to an era when software appliances were better known as turnkey systems.
Thanks to Moore’s Law, it is taken for granted today that the brunt of value in an IT system is comprised of software. In other words, when hardware became cheap or commodity enough, you could cultivate a market for commercial software.
But until the early 90s, you couldn’t always take that for granted. If your application involved heavy number crunching, such developing mechanical or electrical designs (computer-aided design, or CAD; electronic design automation, or EDA), or grinding out a capacity-constrained schedule for a large factory, you probably had to buy a specialized box powerful enough to run your software. And you paid a pretty premium for it. By the early 90s, Moore’s Law made a mockery of that argument, and the market started demanding that vendors shake off their proprietary boxes. Arguably, the emergence of a free market for portable software helped create the conditions that enabled the Internet to flourish.
Today turnkey systems have come back, but we don’t call them that. They’re available as self-contained software appliances that handle functions so compute-intensive, such as XML message parsing or perimeter security, that it makes sense to move the computing overhead off your network or server farms. And then there are the devices that are bought turnkey, but not out of choice: the portable communications devices on which enterprises (and society at large) increasingly rely.
In the case of appliances, turnkey packaging adds value because of the headaches that it eliminates with integrating such resource hungry systems. By comparison, in the mobile device space, turnkey adds no value, except to the mobile carriers who profit from captive markets. As demand for unlocking the iPhone has demonstrated, the demand for freedom to separate the choice of device, carrier, and service plan is more than idle chatter. The Wall St. Journal’s Walt Mossberg made an especially elegant case:
“Suppose you own a Dell computer, and you decide to replace it with a Sony. You don’t have to get the permission of your Internet service provider to do so, or even tell the provider about it. You can just pack up the old machine and set up the new one…
This is the way digital capitalism should work, and, in the case of the mass-market personal-computer industry, and the modern Internet, it has created one of the greatest technological revolutions in human history, as well as one of the greatest spurts of wealth creation and of consumer empowerment….
So, it’s intolerable that the same country that produced all this has trapped its citizens in a backward, stifling system when it comes to the next great technology platform, the cellphone.”
With the FCC planning to auction off new digital spectrum, Google secured a well-publicized victory is persuading the commission to allot a portion to providers that would support a more open systems approach. And since then, we’ve been waiting for the next shoes to drop: when will Google unveiled its Gphone, or will it step up to the plate and actually bid on bandwidth (or do so through surrogates)?
Instead, yesterday Google announced Android, a first act towards opening a new mobile market that more resembles the mainstream of digital markets. It’s an open source platform for smart mobile devices that’s supposed to provide an alternative to Microsoft and Symbian. Android will include its own OS, an HTML web browser, middleware, for which third parties are invited to create applications. Or as colleague Dana Gardner put it, the potential ramifications of Android could shake the PC industry, which is finding itself converging with mobile and home entertainment systems.
“Google with Android and the Open Handset Alliance, however, may blow open a marketplace through a common open platform that can then provide a lot more content, apps, data, media, and services. And that will feed the demand by developers, users, and ultimately advertisers that open platforms be provided on mobile devices.”
Gardner speculates that the atmosphere around Android reminds him of the early days of Java with its idealistic goal of write once, run anywhere. He adds that the connection is more than coincidence as Google CEO Eric Schmidt lead development of Java while at Sun prior to 1997.
We certainly have no shortage of gripes with U.S. mobile carriers: reliance on a mishmash of standards that are largely incompatible with the rest of the world; coverage that is arguably inferior to that of any other developed nation; and restriction of choices that trap customers by linking hardware and software to carrier and wireless plan. As compute platforms opened up, the market for software exploded; the emergence of smarter mobile platforms combined with new bandwidth could certainly work similar wonders in the mobile space.
But lets get off our soapbox for a moment and back to reality. Google simply announced an open source mobile platform yesterday. It’s not the first time that an open platform has been proposed for the mobile world (recall the Javaphone?).
We feel that the excitement over Google’s announcement yesterday was a bit overblown, as there is no assurance yet, FCC decision or not, that a Google-style open mobile market will actually materialize. But the measure of the excitement over this rather modest announcement reflects the reality that there is significant pent up demand for mobile service innovation beyond gimmicks like your circle of five.