Google’s Android not an iPhone

The only real thing that the iPhone and the Gphone have in common at the moment are five letters.

Google’s plans for the mobile phone market have caused quite the stir Monday, even though the company’s press conference Monday morning didn’t add much to what we already knew about Android, a collection of software that could be a catalyst for Linux on mobile phones over the next few years. Still, when any company the size of Google makes noise about steering its ship in a certain direction, people take notice.

Google’s Android software could compete with Apple’s iPhone next year.

(Credit: Open Handset Alliance)

One nice development is that we can stop calling the damn thing the Gphone, which stopped being cute awhile ago in the fine tradition of J-Lo, A-Rod, and K-Fed. But while both Apple and Google will be selling mobile phone software in late 2008, the companies seem determined to walk a fine line in their new dual relationship as trusted partner and wary competitor.

Android is a nice idea; take the promise of Linux as a mobile operating system and finally give it a backer with some legs. This could set Google up nicely for the future if mobile phones continue to turn into little computers, since companies like Symbian and Microsoft are far from entrenched in this market.

Apple is also eying that future. Much of what Google said about Android during its press conference–such as the desire for a better Internet experience on mobile phones–was uttered by Apple CEO Steve Jobs in January during the presentation of the iPhone. And it’s already sold 1.4 million iPhones in three months.

So this time next year, are we going to be talking about the looming showdown between Google and Apple in mobile computing, or the surprising resignation of Google’s Eric Schmidt from Apple’s board of directors?

Today’s discussion was about Android the concept. We won’t really know what Google has developed as far as Android the product until at least next week, when the company releases a software developer’s kit.

Much of the iPhone’s initial success can be traced to the user interface and we have no idea what Google has cooked up in that sense, although Andy Rubin (the brains behind the project) said it would be cool. “We hope Android will be the foundation for many new phones and will create an entirely new mobile experience for users, with new applications and new capabilities we can’t imagine today,” he wrote on the Official Google Blog Monday morning. Fair enough, for now.

Apple is extremely unlikely to directly compete with Google in one sense: OS X is probably not going to be sold on a licensing basis anytime soon. In that sense, Google is really butting heads with Symbian and Microsoft, fighting for design wins at companies beyond Motorola and HTC, who pledged support for Android on Monday. Apple will continue to compete against hardware makers like Nokia, Motorola, and Research in Motion, although software is certainly a selling point for the iPhone.

It also sounds like Google and its partners are focused more on mainstream phones than the high end of the smartphone market where the iPhone plays. Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs said his company hopes to develop chipsets for Android phones that bring the cost below $200, although that might take some time. And Rubin said Android can run on 200MHz processors based on the ARM9 core, which ARM’s Rob Coombs, director of mobile solutions said was very much a mainstream processor by today’s standards. The iPhone uses a 620MHz ARM chip made Samsung that’s based on the current leading-edge ARM11 core.

But I can’t ignore the obvious: If you’re shopping for a smartphone late next year, and you search CNET Reviews’ pages for information on what you should buy, you’ll probably see Android phones from HTC or Motorola compared to phones running Windows Mobile, Symbian, Palm (maybe), and, of course, the iPhone.

What will Android look like? Apple set the bar this year with the iPhone.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

In a way, Android could be good for Apple. One of Intel’s public relations representatives, besieged with requests to comment on AMD’s advantage over Intel’s lackluster server processors in 2004 and 2005, used to always declare that “competition is good for the soul.” Right now, the smartphone industry is trying to come up with an answer to the iPhone, and we’ll all benefit if the bar is continually raised by Apple, Google, Symbian, or any other number of companies.

Also, the more people that embrace the notion of smartphones and sophisticated mobile computers, the better life will be for companies in that industry. A rising tide does lift all boats to a certain extent, and Apple could attempt to position itself as the thought leader in mobile computing and let other companies have the less-profitable segments of the market.

The interesting thing here, however, is that no one from Microsoft, Symbian, Palm, Nokia, Motorola, or Verizon sits on Apple’s board of directors. Google’s Schmidt does. As director, Schmidt is privy to Apple’s future strategic priorities, if not actual details of its product plans. Might Apple now wonder if that’s a good idea?

Apple declined to comment on the notion, other than to note that Google remains an important partner to the company. During the conference call, Schmidt sort of addressed the question of competition with Apple, noting for the record that he’s “a very happy iPhone user, but it’s also important to state that there are going to be very different mobile device experiences.”

It’s not like this is the first time in history that companies have been both partners and competitors; just look back to when IBM was making chips for Apple, but selling Windows PCs. And it’s very common in the software industry, where companies like Oracle and SAP compete fiercely but also have to make sure that their products can work together.

But Larry Ellison isn’t attending board meetings in Germany. There will be many compelling stories that come out of Android and the iPhone during the next year, and the makeup of Apple’s board of directors could be one.

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