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Android: developer dream or Google cash machine?

Strange metallic bedfellows

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Google's marketing department no doubt popped the champagne corks following the massive media coverage and largely positive reaction to Android. OK, so it wasn't actually a phone, but who cares?

Slowly, though, criticism is being heard over Google's decision to make Android available under an Apache Software Foundation (ASF) license rather than the preferred GPL.

The question has to be asked, who - and what - is Android for? To help developers and phone users break the carriers' network lock-in, or to make the lock in more subtle while building a business that swaps your telco for Google?

Before Google hogged the headlines, there already existed, of course, an open source initiative and handset that does use the GPL.

If anything, Android brings renewed attention to Linux - currently around 15 per cent of the mobile market - as a platform for mobile applications. It could also help provide fresh impetus for earlier works such as OpenMoko and Trolltech with its Qtopia.

The long-term success of Android over these other works will, of course, depend on how application developers take to it. The software development kit (SDK) appears to be adequate and IP protection offered by the ASF license should encourage commercially minded developers to back it.

However, it will take more than a $10 million "incentive" to truly galvanize people and generate a powerful and self-sustaining grassroots developer movement and ISV community. Some of the open source technologies changing today's market, after all, built up critical mass because they were good, useful or employed a community friendly license - not because early developers got huge cash dongles.

Google's Android agenda is far from clear, but it seems money is a driving factor, rather than a genuine desire to liberate developers and phone users from the nasty old telcos with an open platform. After all, Android's backers include some of those very carriers that liked to lock you in and have proved nothing more than an anchor on software and service innovation, but who just happen to be lagging the US market leaders.

Google does not seem interested in open source development per se - other than as a way to attract applications to Android. And it is probably not that interested in mobile handsets, either.

A clue to the way it might be thinking surfaced a couple of months ago with its application for a patent on a phone based payment system called gPay.

This is just the sort of application Google likes and it will be keeping its beady eyes peeled for similar goodies emanating from the open source community.

Enlightened capitalism maybe - but capitalism just the same.®

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