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Mobile web polarizes as duellists pick their seconds

Verizon/Google vs AppleT&T

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Verizon teams with Google

As long as this 'third way' remains over the horizon, vendors, software and web players, and carriers will continue to tussle with one another for the top spot in the mobile web value chain, and to agonise over choices of OS and apps partners. This week saw the US top two deepening their stand-off, not just over their flagship smartphones, but also their emerging own-brand web platforms.

As Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam took the stage with his Google counterpart Eric Schmidt, the key announcement was an agreement to co-develop Android devices that would carry the operator's brand and software portfolio, sitting separately from branded Android phones that Verizon is expected to launch soon (most likely, the Motorola Tao/Sholes and at least one product from HTC).

So far so predictable, given similar relationships that Google already has with Verizon development partner China Mobile and with CDMA rival Sprint. But the message was far broader and more aggressive than that - with footnotes like support for Google Voice and side-swipes at Apple, this was all about taking on AT&T, setting the new partners up as champions of openness against the closed iPhone world.

Details were scarce – the multiyear roadmap for the Verizon-Google collaborations include phones and netbooks, and potentially other formats in future, and two devices will be announced “shortly”. As well as PR value, both companies should gain in terms of choice of devices and apps, and speed to market. Google's weight will help Verizon Wireless in its ongoing campaign to woo open developers, after years when it did not need to look beyond its own platforms and partners. And the support of the major carrier should increase the confidence of developers and handset vendors in Android, encouraging them to create more products for the OS and to move existing projects up the agenda.

Verizon Wireless has been playing a will-they won't-they game with Android all year, though it has been embellishing its open developer initiative, as it faces the prospect of opening one of the most tightly controlled networks and software platforms in the world to open access (mandatory on its 700MHz spectrum). Android would logically form part of that initiative, though like the other US majors (except T-Mobile), Verizon Wireless has been cautious about committing itself too quickly to an untried platform with few handset choices. Instead, its first open steps have focused on Java, which it embraced firmly in June, its own app store plans, and some interest in LiMO; while its applications response to the AT&T iPhone has relied heavily on RIM. A year ago, CEO Lowell McAdam said: "We're planning on using Android. Android is an enabler of what we do” – but few concrete moves followed, until now.

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