The Open Handset Alliance was announced today by Google and 30 or so other companies. Until now the highest-profile open source handset operating environment was OpenMoko.
The list of participants has no real surprises in it. Nokia isn’t on the list, most likely because this project competes head on with Symbian. This may also help to explain why Sony Ericsson isn’t a supporter yet, either. But the other three of the top five handset manufacturers are members: Motorola, Samsung and LG. All of these ship Symbian-based phones, but they also ship Windows based phones, so they are already pursuing an OS-agnostic strategy. Open standards are less helpful to a market leader than to its competitors.
Of course the other leading smartphone OS vendors are also missing from the list: Microsoft, Apple, Palm and RIM.
Ebay is there because this massively benefits Skype.
Silicon vendors retain more control of their destiny when there is a competitive software community, so it makes sense that TI is aboard even though it is the market leader in cellphone chips. Intel is another chip vendor that is a member. Intel can normally be relied on to support this type of open platform initiative, and although Intel sold its handset-related businesses in 2006, its low power CPU efforts may evolve from ultra-mobile PCs down to smartphones in a few years.
Among MNOs Verizon and AT&T Mobile are notorious for their walled-garden policies, so it makes sense that they aren’t on the list, though Sprint and T-Mobile are, which is an encouraging indication.
At the launch of the iPhone Steve Jobs said that the reason there would be no SDK for the iPhone was that AT&T didn’t want their network brought down by a rogue application. I ridiculed this excuse in an Internet Telephony column. Even so, the carriers do have a valid objection to completely open platforms: their subscribers will call them for support when the phone crashes. For this reason, applications that use sensitive APIs in Symbian must be “Symbian signed.” When he announced the iPhone SDK, Steve Jobs alluded to this as a model that Apple may follow.
So Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s participation in this initiative is very interesting. Sprint’s press release says:
Unlike other wireless carriers, Sprint allows data users to freely browse the Internet outside its portal and has done so since first offering access to the Internet on its phones in 2001.
Open Internet access is actually available from all the major US MNOs other than Verizon; AT&T ships the best handset for this, the iPhone. But the iPhone doesn’t (officially) let users load whatever software they want onto the phone. Symbian and Windows-based phones generally do, and again all the major MNOs ship handsets based on these operating systems. An open source handset goes a big step further, but who benefits depends on what parts of the source code are published, and what APIs are exposed by the proprietary parts of the system. As a rule of thumb, one would think that giving developers this greater degree of control over the system will increase their scope for innovation.