Analysis: Google's Android Phone and the Four Carriers

Click to viewThe opening volley of official announcements from Google and the Open Handset Alliance bring good news for people sick of the carrier choke hold. Of course, it's easy to spot who gets an Android device first: T-Mobile and Sprint. And it's easy to understand why underdogs like them would be the first two carriers to sign on to the initiative. But let's look a little deeper, to see why the gPhone/Android platform is off to a much better start than the iPhone, and why you probably won't have to switch to a carrier you don't want to get a phone you might really love.

For starters, Sprint and T-Mobile are big companies but they don't have the momentum or subscribers that Verizon Wireless and AT&T do. T-Mo's the baby with 26 million, though that is part of a global subscriber base that's vastly larger (over 109 million). Sprint has an impressive 54 million subscribers, but is currently in a public panic about waning performance. Both, contending with bigger gorillas, have reason to latch on to the biggest of them all, Google.

There's a second reason for T-Mo and Sprint to be onboard: HTC. HTC has had a good run with both of those carriers, introducing two of the coolest recent products exclusively on them: T-Mobile's Shadow and Sprint's Touch. Verizon and AT&T have relationships with HTC as well, but it's easy to see how HTC would feel comfortable developing an Android product for the two smaller carriers.

Qualcomm's high-level involvement in OHA is actually very surprising, both because it is such a close partner of Verizon, and because it is one of the biggest architects of the closed application-and-service environment that you see in US carriers. Brew is Qualcomm's baby, a closed Java equivalent that may be easy for developers to work with but comes with strings attached.

Clearly, though, Qualcomm's participation signals something else, that it is time for even the master walled gardener to embrace the open field. At least, that's what I hope it means, because its presence means that a Verizon Android handset can't be too far off. (Verizon today told us that it "shares the goal of more open mobile application development," and that this competitive move on Google's part shows that innovation comes without the need for "legislation nor regulation," so here's hoping.)

The point is, even if you're neither a Sprint or a T-Mobile customer, you should be happy with today's announcement. Google said explicitly that the OHA is open to everyone, and that the absence of partners (for example, AT&T and Verizon) should not be taken as exclusion. But having Sprint and T-Mo ensures equal development time for both networks, GSM/HSDPA side and CDMA/EV-DO. T-Mobile promises to have their HSDPA (3G) network up by early next year, in time for any Android smartphone to take advantage.

When it matters, there will be HTC (and perhaps Motorola, LG and Samsung) phones that work on the networks of all four carriers. It's a sped-up version of the Treo or BlackBerry scenario: once a handset gains a certain level of popularity, even the mega carriers must yield to their demanding customers. When the Treo or BlackBerry first came out, there was no CDMA version so Sprint and Verizon customers got the shaft, and it took years of development, not just a quick port, to give them what they wanted. Thankfully that will not be the case with Android.

The iPhone is different: it was developed for GSM/EDGE only, and with an exclusive deal with the largest US GSM carrier. Although Apple hasn't confirmed the 5-year exclusivity rumor, it could easily remain locked out of everyone else's hands, in spite of unprecedented demand.

Speaking of locked, while we can assume that the early Sprint Android handsets will be partial to their carrier because of the lack of SIM cards with CDMA phones, HTC told us that it will sell unlocked Android phones directly to consumers, so that anyone with an AT&T contract who wants in can get in early.

There's also a difference between Google's and Apple's approach. By creating an open platform, Google is trying to make money not on software or hardware sales, but by creating vast hordes of ad-susceptible phone users. Google can be less selfish about design, and less worried about stumbles on the road to perfection. Google boss Eric Schmidt told us today that they would not be in the business of clamping down on independent development, and from the sound of it, would be encouraging carriers to adopt a hands-off policy toward third-party development.

What Google is saying to carriers is that customers are grown-ups. They can own a PC for years before it's chock-full of viruses, malware and memory hogging crap they don't need. Why not give them access to a world's worth of software—and expose them to the same acknowledged risks—with their phones? iPhone owners should be happy that Google's move simply adds pressure on Apple to open the SDK faster. But the larger question we should ask is this: Why will Android succeed where Symbian, Palm OS and Windows Mobile have failed?

It is possible that Google's muscle, outspoken pledge of openness, ability to bring much of the familiar PC experience to the Android phone, and vast think tank of collaborators who can avoid the mistakes of the smartphones that failed, the carriers that squeezed too hard and lost their grip, and of that famous experiment in gadget lust and contractual obligation that is the iPhone. But then again, it could be no more than the fragmented world of Linux development, without much mainstream splash.