Inside Google Android paranoia
While the mobile Linux community has reacted positively to Google's Android, the new platform has also given it some cause for concern. The arrival of a giant player area with very clear ideas of role it wants mobile Linux to fill was bound to ruffle a few feathers and, despite public proclamations of "welcome" and "support", the Linux establishment is showing a few cracks.
It is not only Google's support for a specific strand of Linux development that is causing concern - but the formation of yet another Linux knitting circle in the form of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). Pre-Android, mobile Linux was not short of knitting circles arguing about the minutiae of various levels of the software stack based on mobile Linux with the result that efforts to establish mobile Linux standards were becoming increasingly fragmented and, indeed, holding back progress.
In addition to the efforts of the various knitting circles, Linux made steady progress across the mobile market this year even before Google stepped in. Palm announced its version of Linux last April and Access launched its Linux mobile platform at LinuxWorld in August. Both probably added to the growing fragmentation of mobile Linux.
Like it or not, Google has achieved something that none of the established knitting circles has managed so far; it has created a single target platform for developers to aim for. One early view of how you can build Android applications illustrates this.
But a unified standard does not necessarily play well with the established mobile Linux players. The LiPS Forum, for example, says it "regards OHA as complementary" and acknowledges that Android and the OHA have confirmed the popularity of Linux in mobile and embedded applications. LiPS also says that Android shares in its mission "to reduce fragmentation among Linux-based mobile platforms" - only with a different approach. While LiPS aims to unify the development of mobile Linux through open standards, it sees the Android and OHA team as working to the same end with shared code.
But elsewhere LiPS general manager Bill Weinberg has expressed concerns about the limitations of Google's use of the Apache license for Android and suggests that far from reducing fragmentation, Android might increase it.
Morgan Gillis, executive director of the LiMo Foundation, said publicly that he welcomed Google's move and also sees the role of the OHA as complementary. Google's angle is, he said, focussed on the end-user experience and bringing the Web to mobile devices while the LiMo Foundation wants to create a common middleware platform to underpin mobile applications.
But in the same interview he pointed out that those in the mobile Linux area have a stark choice: "Work with Google, or think very seriously about how to achieve the next-generation mobile internet experience for their customers on their own."
LiMo Foundation member Wind River sees Android continuing what LiMO started, and as both a disruptive and a positive force. It disrupts the status quo by undermining some business models - but it also consolidates Linux's dominant role in the future of mobile devices.
Jason Whitmire, Wind River's general manager of mobile business, told Register Developer: "A year ago Linux platforms were proliferating so it seemed like there was a new one every week. Then the operators and handset manufacturers wanted some sort of consolidation - ideally around a single Linux platform. The LiMo Foundation started the consolidation process - which is positive - but it also disrupted business models based on royalties.
"OHA and Android continue the consolidation and are also major disrupters because they are going to get there earlier than LiMo. For us the consolidation around LiMo and Android is a big boon because we can focus on them and not dilute our efforts. I would say that, in the next two and a half years, LiMo and Android are going to account for around 75 per cent of Linux-based mobile business," he added.
Fellow LiMo member MontaVista is equally positive about Android and sees it as the ultimate ratification of Linux as a mobile platform.
Dan Cauchy, director of marketing at MontaVista, said: "Linux already had the tools and the skill pool and now it is an operating system that can go any where - it can run on any device. Android completely solidifies our position because it is going to provide a framework and APIs to enable third-party developers to create applications. And it rows our ecosystem at the expense of Microsoft and Symbian."
The next six months will certainly be critical in the growth of Android ecosystem. It could have the same galvanising effect on mobile application development that Windows had on PC applications in the late 1980s.
Developers need to pick it up and create some compelling applications to match the appeal of, say, Apple's iPhone. But despite the concerns over licensing and the possibilities of a broader long-term agenda from Google, it would be hard (and, perhaps, foolish) to bet against it.®