The mobile phone and computer have been in merger mode for many years now. But Googles Android project, supported by over 30 other tech and telecom firms, including Intel, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm and Samsung, promises a new experience altogether. The consortium, Open Handset Alliance (Oha), aims to launch the worlds first open and free mobile platform. Android gizmos, based on the Linux operating system, will allow their users to browse the Web, chat online, see pictures and zoom in on their favourite spots on city maps on tiny screens. Android is expected to hit the market by the second half of this year, and the idea is to offer consumers a fingertouch spread of computer applications on their mobile handsets.
But is it all hype Is there a market for it Isnt it a case of dj vu Similar mobile computing platforms have been offered in the past by companies like Apple, Microsoft, Symbian, and Research In Motion. Even open-source, Linux-based tools for mobiles have been around. An operating standard called LiMo (Linux Mobile), for example, promised an open hardware-agnostic standard for mobile phones. Yet, mobiles are still used mostly for voice communication, and computer applications on tiny devices have not won many adherents. Is there a usage deterrent
Current mobile phone designs are unwieldy even for regular email and simple calculator arithmetic, let alone more sophisticated work. Imagine using a spreadsheet application on that tiny screen, for example. Also, their low battery life is an irritant. They have to be kept plugged in for charging almost endlessly just for a routine days work.
But the big reason for the slow adoption of phone-based computing products is the exorbitantly priced data services. As data applications involve content downloads, they tend to hog airtime, pushing up bills. Of the nearly three billion mobile subscribers in the world, very few are willing to pay for anything other than voice calls or messaging, the must-have basics, despite the grandest of efforts by mobile operators to sell value-added services (Vas). In India, this keeps the average revenue per user (Arpu) within an extremely low monthly bracket of $5 or less. And with voice-Arpu falling further as call charges drop, touching even $5 will soon be enough to call for a celebratory high five.
Mobile operators have a challenge at hand to encourage mobile users to consume more airtime. The data services that Android and other such platforms will enable could, in theory, see that happen. So far, argue some, the limited set of available applications had restricted the appeal of such devices. Googles objective in keeping everything open is to invite software programmers around the world to freely write applications for Android, which, in turn, would enhance its appeal, attract more developers and thus set off a self-reinforcing success loop.
To prod things along, Google has announced an Android Developer Challenge, offering cash prizes worth $10 million to application developers. What mobile operators must bear in mind, however, is that these are but extensions of the basic communication need, which is to talk. And if the special content is not compelling enough for the mass market, Android will end up as just another niche solution. Google, though, wants big numbers. And the Oha consortium is hard at work trying to see off any possible obstacle in this race for your pocket. Android will be breathing down your neck soon.
The author is a technology market analyst. These are his personal views