Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Can The Pizza Industry Subsidise A Mobile Linux OS?

Without wishing to stoke the hype flames, I figured I ought to do a follow-up to my post yesterday now that Google have actually done their Annoucement (sic, though sadly they corrected the typo in the release title last night).

The world clearly doesn't need another Linux consortium, having plenty already, but apparently it has one, and more importantly one that will give its mobile-optimised implementation of the OS away for free. So that actually makes the playing field smaller, as any company selling an implementation will be dead within a few years. Ho hum.

The real question is, where's the money in it for Google? Clearly making Linux work as a mobile OS is harder than anyone thought, which is why we have no single core Linux phones yet. For the curious there are some more very interesting details on that and other topics over at Vision Mobile's analysis of Motorola's OS strategy - though I think "OS tactics" is a more appropriate term for Moto right now. They've taken 3 years to reach the point where they can make a content-lite annoucement, so clearly this is a considerable ongoing investment.

Amongst a lot of hot air, I've read two pieces which try to address this question: Michael Mace's theory is that they are purely interested in demolishing walled gardens and any other barrier to the standard Google business model, so really the monetisation happens when users are free to go to Google on their phone just like their PC. There's a lot of merit to the piece but the big shortcoming is that it is not the handset manufacturers and OS vendors who put the walled gardens in place, it's the Operators and they may bend a little for Google (and a fat revenue share) but they can still ultimately kill any Google OS device whilst they remain in control of the networks. Despite the calls of many in the tech world, they won't give up the status quo without a fight - and in general, they have proved that they would rather kill a market than give it to someone else.

Christian Lindholm took the more cynical side, which kind of mirrored my inital feelings when I realised they weren't yet bothering to address the UI layer. The data mining potential for controlling a mobile phone at the OS layer is huge... though you'd have to hope they never got a chance to fully make use of it.

If they were also working on the UI layer you could imagine some interesting innovations around search-based interfaces - maybe like the way you're contact list auto-filters as you start typing someone's name, but extended to every app on the device (meetings from the calendar, text message threads, etc) and services beyond. The archetypal service sell here would be searching for 'pizza' and having the location-enabled phone add in local pizza sellers from Google Maps - cool and undeniably useful, but now try and think of many other applications which would really work this way more than once a year. Is a cut of every pizza sale enough to subsidise a mobile Linux?

The problem with an open OS (which this isn't really, but let's pretend) with an open browser is that it leaves the users free to use any service they want. Are Google just gambling that they will continue to keep the lion's share of all traffic, as Michael suggests? How will that survive when it meets the operator customisation manual, or the commercial imperatives of Motorola or Samsung who might like to monetise through some other partner? Imagine if the OS gains the mass market within 5 years, but in the same period a new competitor steals the search market from Google and thus all the profits? It happened to Altavista so it could happen to Google.

I like the announcement purely because it shakes everything up, and having almost no real content makes it all the more interesting because the power of uncertain possibilities is more appealing than what they may actually knock out. Whether it has a long term impact will come down to whether they launch something that works well for all the players and really follow through to continue development over the years. Should that happen, I couldn't begin to answer how or when Google will begin to make money from it... but it'll be an interesting ride.

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