By now, it's clear that Google's Android isn't a cell phone. Instead, the Android Open Handset Alliance is an ambitious attempt to expand on Apple's breakthrough into "commputers"--communication devices with real computing functionality.
The iPhone proved we're more than ready for commputers--and we're even willing to pay Apple prices. Android will provide a mass-market alternative: It will standardize commputers the way Windows and the x86 processor did PCs. That won't be easy.
The way it works now, phone users and developers alike are held captive to individual phone networks by FCC rulings designed to guarantee carriers a return on their infrastructure-building investments. That wasn't such a bad deal for consumers when cell phones were just messaging appliances. But when it comes to browsing the web and using business applications, we'll want the same no-limits experience we enjoy on desktops.
Entrepreneurs would love to write for our 235 million cell phones, but they face a tangle of conflicting programming standards. Google also would like to tap an AdSense universe that dwarfs its desktop opportunity, but for its free Linux-based development platform to succeed, it needs applications with heat. The answer? Google is promising a share of $10 million to entrepreneurs who submit the most innovative Android proposals by March 3.
Just having search/GPS mashups on computing-capable endpoints would open up new opportunities for all businesses. Office Depot's new marketing initiative provides a glimpse of the possibilities. Participating customer phones surf Office Depot's web page with store locator, product information and click-to-dial capability. News of sales, sweepstakes, and product and pricing updates are pushed to opt-in customers with store-specific coupons going only to neighborhood phones. Widgets and slim Ajax applications would add sizzle to that.
Naturally, the carriers and their handset partners aren't just going to surrender their franchises to Google. Verizon Wireless just released Voyager and Venus, a pair of iPhone-like commputers designed to operate within the current ecosystem. But it also agreed to support Android. That could change the phone economy, increase innovation and price competition, and make 2008 a watershed.