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12 November 2007

Google's Hesitant Foray

Google's new platform, Android, takes on the might of Nokia's Symbian, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, and Research In Motion's BlackBerry, promising to turn handsets into fully functional PCs. Google must now take the quantum leap

It has been reported that Google, through a collaboration with 33 other companies, is going to launch in two years a Rs 4,000 mobile phone that will replace personal computers completely. Google's spokespersons say that the alliance is targeting Internet-enabled smart phones where the asking price worldwide is closer to $ 200 rather than $ 20.

The Open Handset Alliance will include handset makers, technology developers and carriers, the prominent among them being Qualcomm, NTT DoCoMo, Telefonica, LG, and Samsung. Google will offer up something called the "Android Mobile Software Stack", an integrated family of software including an operating system and new mobile applications.

If you access the World Wide Web on a machine of Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM or Apple, the output on screen is more or less the same. But you haven't been getting the same effect on your Motorola, Nokia, Sony-Ericsson or Samsung handset, right? The scenario may be compared with a multiplex versus plasma TV experience; howsoever sophisticated the latter might be, there's nothing like the hall experience.

Google promises to change all that. Microsoft is trying as well. But as usual, the latter has been a laggard in this domain too.

The last PC revolution came about when Microsoft created a user-friendly operating system and coupled the marketing idea, capitalising on a lenient licence-fee regime and forcing all hardware manufacturers to produce desktops that are backward compatible.

Google is smarter. Based on the prediction that while the world will buy about 25,000,000 PCs this year, it will buy 1,000,000,000 mobile handsets in the same period, the company will surely put its money on a product whose unit-sales volume will 40 times its competition.

It's a battle of cultures. Google's business model, mobile and wired, is based on the simple premise that, given the choice, users will prefer its offerings. Anything that restricts that choice -- that locks users into a network, a handset, OS or application -- is an enemy. The mobile world is still gripped by a terrible fear that, given the choice, users will prefer to 'move'.

There's something more about the Google strategy that will be smarter. It won't look for a favourable licence structure. Rather, it will bet on advertising that is going mobile at a terrific rate. No wonder, there is frenzy among the chip businesses to partner with Google to share the ad revenue. Google's "Android", thus, has many takers -- YouTube, Facebook, and Skype -- all of which will be available on any handheld device that runs on the platform. And users will be able to download stuff as and when they like.

Now, this does not mean it's end of the road for handset manufacturers. If manufacturers like Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, Sony-Ericsson, etc cannot dictate anymore to their customers what they can and cannot access through their cellular phones, Google cannot dictate them terms either. The system in place for revenue sharing from advertisements of web-based products - search, maps, social networking applications, video, music, etc -- makes it imperative for Google to strike deals with product manufacturers and service providers alike. Or else, its own products may not be flashed on the screen when a user logs on.

This could mean that when you agree to the terms and conditions -- few bother to read the fine print -- offered by, say, a website, you are virtually agreeing to censorship. Moreover, what the constraints in the terms of service of Android itself will be is not clear.

Also, it will take the juggernaut of the 34-company conglomerate quite some time to get moving towards its market objectives. The already available services -- which India's Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, BPL and Reliance customers will vouch for -- such as downloading of games, ringtones, etc too will be difficult for such a large association to manage as each partner may push for its own brands.

There are more reasons to be pessimist. Early this year, a similar alliance comprising Motorola, Panasonic, NEC and Samsung had tried to engineer a shift towards an open, Linux-based platform for mobile phones. The project bombed.

It is intriguing, therefore, to note that Google, which has developed terrific brand equity by pioneering web services others couldn't envisage beforehand, is shying away from using its name on the new handsets. To do justice to its name, it would have certainly tried better to deliver had it been its own initiative. After all, any web venture carrying the brand Google has seen the light of the day the fastest of all.

Finally, let's not underrate a laptop's capabilities and Microsoft's marketing prowess. Everything said and done, the smartest mobile handset still is, in terms of technology, 15 years behind the science of the best desktop. There's still no monopoly operating system. Instead, there's a three-way split between Linux, Symbian and Microsoft, with Microsoft currently bringing up the rear.

If Google is smart -- and there is some evidence to that effect -- it will strive to develop a lively developer community. That's one area in which Microsoft is better than the competition -- the OHA would do well to note that its rivals are no pushovers. It takes more than just a software development kit (SDK), which Apple is wary.

The stand taken by handset maker HTC, Microsoft's most prominent hardware partner, is, of course, funny. It's saying that it's collaboration with Android does not mean it is no longer loyal to Windows. In the selfish world of business, nobody's believing it.

But before Google scampers for more partners or the manufacturers make a beeline for a "Gphone" known by any other name, Android must prove it works. A sensible year-long gestation period it has asked for has put the worry about compatible products on the backburner.

The mobile world is surely in for a revolution. Google has got the right idea, the right people, both at the right time, to lead that revolution. All it needs now is a little more confidence.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.