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.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words - Fox News Get To The Nub

The rumours surrounding the alleged Google phone, currently actually saying it will be a Google mobile OS, have been summed up rather nicely by Fox News in one single diagram which distills everything we know for sure about the advertising juggernaut's mobile plans:

Caption: "What the HTC Touch smartphone might look like with a Google operating system."

Technically that is incorrect, they forgot to add "if it were on Sprint", but we'll let them off as Fox News viewers have never been sticklers for accuracy. The diagram is still genius in that it really does encapsulate all of the facts, removing all the unsubstantiated dross around the edges.

The article goes on to talk about what "innumerable, but still anonymous, tech-industry sources" have been saying for ages. Here we descend back onto more familiar Fox News territory, regurgitating what people want to hear without worrying too much about reality; we know it's what people want to hear because so many bloggers have been writing about for so long. There's no echo chamber effect here, oh no.

Amid the myriad of rumours, there have been a few interesting posts such as Skydeck's 5 predictions (via this week's Carnival), rare in its application of actual real numbers and some insight into the industry and lack of religious certainty in the greatness of Google. It's also correct in pointing out that whilst Google has managed to turn out a few very nice Java apps, when it comes to mobilising their bread and butter service (Adwords) they've done a piss poor job - anyone who remembers their pre-YouTube video forays may have to pause and wonder for a second what a Google phone OS might look like. All experience suggests that whatever comes out of Google, it won't have an iPhone-level experience.

So hands up who thinks their current phone has too much screen space and desperately needs a serious percentage of real estate dedicated to advertising, with the UI hobbled to make the ads easily clickable? Think about how many keypresses it takes you to navigate round your menus before you answer that one, and mobile operators - you can put your hands back down right now, you don't count and your enthusiasm speaks volumes about who will benefit.

No, just like the iPhone, the Google phone / OS / whatever will mainly be interesting for what it does to shake up the industry. It is unlikely to have the polish of the fruit company's wares and it probably won't have such a positive effect on competition either, but at least it'll ruffle some complacent feathers.