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Originally published November 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 19, 2007 at 2:58 PM

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Will there be a gaggle of Google Android phones?

Google said it doesn't want to build one mobile phone — it wants to build an army of thousands. Over the past year, the industry eagerly...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Android

Consortium: The Open Handset Alliance covers every aspect of the mobile industry to help in the development of Android, a free mobile-operating system built by Google.

Members: The alliance includes China Mobile, Sprint Nextel, NTT DoCoMo, T-Mobile, Broadcom, Intel, Qualcomm, HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung, eBay, Google and Nuance Communications.

For consumers: It says consumers will benefit by cheaper and more innovative mobile devices and services, with easier-to-use interfaces as well as a rich portfolio of applications.

Contest: Google will award $10 million in two Android Developer Challenges. In the first, submissions will be accepted until March 3. The second will launch after the first handsets are built, in the second half of 2008. In the first challenge, 50 of the most promising entries received will each get $25,000 awards to fund further development. Those companies will then be eligible for 10 $275,000 awards and 10 $100,000 awards.

Google said it doesn't want to build one mobile phone — it wants to build an army of thousands.

Over the past year, the industry eagerly waited for the Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant to announce its big mobile play. Rumors circulated that the company was working on the Gphone, something that could rival the Apple iPhone. Two weeks ago, Google dispelled that myth.

On a conference call, company executives instead unveiled a mobile software platform called Android, a free, open-source operating system. The platform would allow developers to build new applications that the company thinks have been too difficult to develop on today's mobile operating systems.

Google is hoping Android leads to cheaper, better phones that will be much more advanced.

Even though the platform's first phone won't be released until later next year, Android's technical specifications were released last Monday.

But questions still arise: Will developers flock to the code? Will they build anything on Android immediately — or later? Does the platform generate excitement or is it a letdown?

There may be few better places to ask these questions than in Seattle, known for its legion of mobile-software developers. In interviews last week, the consensus of a dozen or so Seattle-area startups, well-established companies and individual developers is that, while many checked out the code disclosed last week, they didn't have immediate plans to do anything.

The companies said there are still a lot of questions regarding the platform, and it's premature to drop projects already in the works that are expected to make money.

Not even the $10 million in prize money Google is offering for developers who build the best applications for Android was enough incentive, they said.

"It's going to depend on the startup," said Dan Shapiro, chief executive of Ontela, which is building a mobile photo-sharing application. "I can think of a couple of guys who are working in a garage [who] would find that to be tremendous incentive, but for us, we have obligations to customers. That's where our focus has been."

Chris Lihosit, a senior creative technical architect at Action Engine, said one of the first things he did last Monday was download the developer kit, which encompasses all the tools needed to build an application. Although some of the features look great, he said, Action Engine is not interested.

"To be clear, I'm excited about firing it up and banging away to my heart's content whenever I have a weekend to burn," Lihosit said, "but I don't know if it will be part of my job description."

Partnerships

Google readily admits it can't build the platform on its own.

So the company is partnering with 33 others to create the Open Handset Alliance, which will focus on Android. The list includes big names such as T-Mobile, Sprint Nextel, Intel, Qualcomm, Motorola and HTC and eBay. Smaller, more specialized companies are also in the group.

Beyond the alliance, Google will need to tap the collective expertise of hundreds of third-party developers.

Developers are a fragmented bunch. They work at startups, large publicly held companies, or as consultants. Sometimes, they even develop programs in their spare time.

Without developers, Google will have a hard time making enough applications — music services, mobile games, social networks and the like — to drive carriers to sell Android-based phones and get consumers interested in buying them. What will grab a developer's attention are the millions of phones being used by millions of consumers.

Dominant systems

Today, Symbian, Microsoft and BlackBerry are the dominant cellphone operating systems for high-end smartphones. Developers use a variety of languages — Sun Microsystems's Java, C++ (used by Microsoft), and Qualcomm's Brew — to craft applications on existing phones.

Android is based on Linux, the open-source software. To complicate things, Android has built its own software layer on top. Developers can use Java for Android work, but it's not the version used widely in mobile today. Applications already built on mobile Java won't necessarily work on the richer, more powerful version Android uses.

Because of this, some developers say, Android may be creating more headaches for mobile.

More fragmentation

Jeff Holden, co-founder and chief executive of Pelago, said it's difficult enough serving existing platforms.

Seattle-based Pelago is now working on a mobile Java version for its Whrrl service. Launched last month, Whrrl provides recommendations of restaurants and services based on the phone's location and the user's social network.

"The way we perceive Android is that it is another platform and, therefore, it increases fragmentation," Holden said. "I see it as an interesting and worthy move. It's not silly, and it's only something Google could do, but today there is zero value to rushing into porting for it."

"Porting" refers to how developers, after building an application based on a single language, must rework it for additional platforms if they want to run the program on more phones. In addition, a program must be tweaked for individual phones because, for instance, screen sizes vary and keyboards differ.

With a given carrier supporting hundreds of phones, an application can be written thousands of times.

Bellevue-based Action Engine, which builds software for media companies to distribute their content on mobile phones, said it took about three years to get its work on all platforms, and it's still tweaking a version expected soon for BlackBerry phones.

"It might take you from nine to 12 months to build for Android," said Lihosit, the developer at Action Engine.

Various platforms

Another challenge is the expense of building for various platforms.

Josh Levine, vice president of marketing at IceBreaker, a Bellevue company that has a mobile-phone service called Crush or Flush, said the company has tried to avoid making applications that reside on the phone. Instead it provides its service on the mobile Web — through a phone's Internet connection.

It is now evaluating whether to build applications so it can provide cooler features, such as zooming in on someone's profile picture.

An undertaking of this size would cost about $205,000, covering salaries and benefits for three developers for three months, one designer for two months, and a product manager, Levine said. Compare that with the $275,000 grand prize that Google will hand out to 10 companies in the incentive competition.

"The tough question that no one is talking about is, how well the app will just work on all handsets and across all carriers," Levin said. "The holy grail is to write-once, run-everywhere, and no one has been able to crack this yet."

Ford Davidson, founder and CEO of Dashwire, said his development team was excited about the platform and argued that contest awards would be a good source of funding for the company.

He rejected the idea.

"Yep, it's cool, but we have to stay focused," said Davidson, whose service helps people manage their phones through the Internet. "We have lots of phones that are out there that we have to get working for our service."

Other capabilities

For Google to succeed, it will have to offer something other platforms don't have, developers say.

So far, Google says the biggest difference is that the platform will be open.

On a practical level, that means every aspect of the phone's user interface can be customized. A developer can even change small things, such as how the dial pad looks.

Android will also allow interaction between applications. In one scenario, a developer takes information from a user's calendar or contacts to build a location application that communicates where the user and his or her friends are at a given time.

Darren Erik Vengroff, Pelago's chief technology officer and co-founder, said that even if Android has such capabilities built in, it is unknown whether the carrier will allow developers access to such user information.

Scott Sloat, a Sprint Nextel spokesman, said it's too early to tell what will happen, but the company's philosophy is to be open.

"It would be against the grain to sign on to this, and then say, 'Hold on a sec, we aren't going to let you do these things,' " he said. "By the same token, we owe it to the customers to make sure their data is protected. Yes, we are going to be open, but we have a duty to make sure the customer and network are protected."

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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