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Google's gives the world (another) Linux phone OS

SDK next week, phones next year

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Google has unveiled its phone platform, Android. It's yet another Linux OS, freely licensed, and will appear in devices in the second half of next year. Google has signed up over 30 partners including Qualcomm, Motorola, HTC and operators including Deutsche Telekom for the "Open Handset Alliance".

CEO Eric Schmidt described it as "the first truly open platform for mobile devices." Android, named after the start-up company Google acquired in 2005, encompasses middleware and applications as well as the base kernel. An SDK is promised for download next Monday under an Apache license. However, the ad-supported model will take a while to shake out.

"Contrary to a lot of speculation out there, we won't see a completely ad-driven cellphone based on Android for quite some time," said Andy Rubin.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, it's because it is.

Two such alliances appeared in 2005, and two more this year. The LIMO Alliance, backed by NTT DoCoMo, Motorola and Samsung was unveiled in January. ARM announced yet another industry Linux OS coalition just a month ago.

Despite clocking up a healthy air miles account for all involved, real momentum has stalled for Linux on mobile phones: you'll look for a 3G Linux phone in vain, today. Motorola made a strategic bet on open source in 2003 but discovered that integration complexity and costs outweighed the advantages: the company recently returned to Symbian for its smartphones. Nevertheless a wide alliance of industry backers have come to Google's launch.

Currently Symbian dominates the smartphone business. It's painfully built-up almost a decade's worth of integration expertise in giving manufacturers what they want, including a successful Japanese business where carriers dominate. Symbian's chief technical advantage today is the platform's maturity, and more recently, its real-time kernel. This permits manufacturers to build lower-cost single-chip phones, while running their older proprietary baseband stacks as an OS personality.

With Nokia, whose volume drives lower component costs, pushing Symbian into its midrange feature phones, Android faces a stiff challenge competing in this market.

And as we pointed out earlier this today, it isn't clear that failure of rich mobile data services is due to anything on the supply side - people just don't find them very useful.

There's a significant gap, however, for "two box" solutions that only Blackberry and Apple fill today, as phone companions. Rubin said the system requirements supported QWERTY and large screen sizes, and Schmidt hinted at bringing the PC experience to mobile devices.

Android may yet find a niche in which to flourish. ®

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