Why consumers should care about Google’s mobile platform

November 9, 2007, 3:16 PM UTC

By Michal Lev-Ram

Google’s mobile plans, announced earlier this week, failed to generate the kind of consumer buzz and media frenzy that the iPhone launch did. Unlike Apple’s sleek, all-touchscreen device, Google’s Android isn’t a phone — it’s a mobile platform. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to get excited about a shiny new gadget than a set of APIs — application programming interfaces.

The search giant will announce more news about its Android platform on Monday, when it’s expected to unveil tools developers can use to create mobile applications. But a physical device to ooh and aah over won’t be available until the middle of next year, and could make it difficult for consumers to understand why they should care about Google’s (GOOG) mobile plans. (Several industry insiders, however, have reported that they were shown a “Gphone” prototype, created by Google to show the kind of things a phone running on Android could do.)

“It may have been a disappointment to some people because there was no tangible product to look at,” says Greg Sterling, founding principal of technology research firm Sterling Market Intelligence. “In Apple’s (AAPL) case, they had a phone to show, and that made the announcement more concrete.”

Still, the time lag and lack of something people can stick in their pocket today doesn’t mean that Android’s launch isn’t significant to consumers.

“The impact of this coalition and platform is potentially large but it will play out over a long period of time,” says Charles Golvin, a wireless analyst with Forrester Research.

Golvin says that as an open platform Android has the potential over time to give consumers a much wider range of things to do with their phone. Currently, wireless customers are almost completely dependent on their carriers to gain access to a variety of applications that are widely available online — Google maps, for example. But Android would give all developers (including Google, of course) access to a common set of application-building tools. Developers will also have access to parts of a phone’s software and hardware that were previously off-limits. GPS functionality, for example, will be more freely and easily integrated into all sorts of applications, like location-based social networking.

“What they’ve announced could be described as a very flexible and advanced engine that many different cars will be built on,” says Andrew Hsu, a product marketing manager at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Synaptics, which makes touchscreen user interfaces for a number of phonemakers and is also a member of Google’s mobile alliance. “Because it’s open, anyone can look inside and see and tweak the engine — that’s something you never really got to do before.”

According to Hsu, the Android platform is a wakeup call to the wireless industry, and could be as much a game-changer as Apple’s iPhone.

We’re still months away from the day Google chief executive Eric Schmidt can stand on stage and pull a Gphone out of his pocket, a la Steve Jobs. That’s because Android’s success partially depends on getting as many developers and phonemakers as possible to adopt the platform and to collaborate — and that means spreading the word.

“They announced it the way they did to build awareness among developers and to get the applications that will help give it some momentum,” says Sterling. And that, adds Sterling, needs to happen before an actual phone is released.

Of course, while Apple’s iPhone has already proved itself, any phone running on Google’s Android is far from a slam dunk.

“It’s not a guaranteed success by any means,” says Sterling. “But it is a bold effort to move the industry forward and to break the Balkanization of the wireless industry.”