Monday, March 31, 2008

Open Wireless: Rich Miner

Rich Miner serves as group manager of open platforms (Android) for Google.

I'm group manager of mobile products. We announced an open handset alliance, roughly 34 partners working with Google to build Android, a Linux-based mobile platform. We also announced a software platform that allows third-party developers to build applications. It was a huge shout by Google about openness in the mobile landscape.

I'll talk a little about the handset space. Most of us carry mobile phones. Today, they have roughly the equivalent of the power that a desktop computer had in 2002. If we look at our mobile phones today, they fall far short of what we could do in 2002 online. There's a huge gap between the capabilities of the hardware and what the industry is offering in terms of software. There's a stifling of innovation because the ecosystem is a closed one.

The platforms we use to operate mobile handsets are closed. Symbian is cleared as an open platform because it has an API. But if you're trying to develop applications, openness by publishing APIs isn't as open as you'd like it to be. It doesn't allow you to choose what applications ship with that handset. It doesn't allow you to find a bug and fix it.

There are other kinds of control and lack of openness. If you're a developer, you can't just go to a consumer and let the consumer download your app to their handset. There are huge hurdles you have to get through. Your destiny is controlled by an operating carrier who's going to make an arbitrary decision.

It's the same with content. On the Web, it's all based on best in quality or the moment, right place right time. In the mobile industry, there are barriers, huge walls. If you look at the number of PCs shipped every year, 200 million PCs, there are about a billion mobile phones shipped every year. If Google wants to make the world's information easily accessible, mobile phones are strategically very important.

The process to develop our mobile apps, the process of distributing those apps, the model's a bit broken. For the last three years, we've made a pretty big investment on the mobile platform Android. We hope it results in significantly more innovation. That's why we built the SDK.

There are a lot of initiatives looking at open source in the mobile industry, but not one of them was looking at allowing you to build a complete phone. We're building a platform that we're open sourcing and giving away. We hope the manufacturers and carriers build a lot of phones on it.

We want to break down the closed mobile platforms and open up the world to a more open handset experience. We're working with carriers to understand the benefits of openness and want openness. The world we envision is more openness on the handset side and then breaking down the walls of innovation.

I've mentioned that it’s open. I've mentioned it's Linux. To just say you're going to take Linux and build a mobile phone probably isn't the right way to do it. It's not the best consumer desktop experience. You need to put a bunch of dedicated software layers on top of Linux to make it a consumer product. When you stack up the architecture diagram, you'll see Linux at the bottom and then a bunch of software that Google or somebody else – like Packet Video – has written. It's a rich stack.

Another thing we thought about was the choice of licensing. We don't want to discourage innovation or limit Sony. We're using the Apache 2.0 software license, which is a very good license when you want to encourage people to make derivative products but don't want to open source everything. Once we ship the first handset, we'll open source the platform. At that point anybody will be able to license the software stack and add their own value.

The pitch to the carriers – and carriers look at Google as competitive – is that we can help make them lots of money but also that they can take this platform and build as tightly branded handset as they'd like. They don't have to build open phones.

This message of openness is starting to resonate throughout the industry. Google feels comforted by that fact. It'll be uncomfortable for carriers if they deliver very closed phones. In general, smart phones should be smart. They should be open. That's our goal.

Suw Charman offers a better report on this session in Corante's Strange Attractor.

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