18 November 2007

Google Wireless

Tim Wu has a new article in Slate that pretty well sums up what Google's recent bid for wireless access means for the future of mobile communications and information access. Wu, with the erudition of a Columbia legal scholar*, humbly reaches the conclusion that Google's new Android platform could be great, or it could bust.

Referring to "the principles of openness," Wu points out that Google's particular challenge in this venture will be to confront head on one of the most historically controlling companies, Ma Bell (and her offspring Verizon and AT&T) over one of the most closely held communications resources, spectrum. While the airwaves are publicly owned--as a reader recently reminded me--access to the airwaves most definitely is not. And whomsoever controls the access sets the rules by which we all must abide.

So what's the implication for the consumer when Google, which has made a killing by giving away products people want, enters the wireless market with a Google-powered phone? Nobody seems to know. Wu breaks the jargon down here:

Let's start with what, exactly, Google is doing. In Google's words, its recently unveiled "Android" is the "first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices."


Google and its allies are now trying to make the principles of openness—the commanding ideology of the Internet—the conquering principle of the wireless world, and the Android announcement is just the first step.

Android is, in form, another of Google's giveaway strategies, a Linux-based operating system for mobile phones that comes with a free set of tools that should make it easy for any programmer to write applications for a mobile phone. It's clear that any Android-based Gphone will be far more "open" than any cell phone the world has yet seen. That means any developer, anywhere, will be able to build whatever functions they think make sense for a mobile computer, and users will be able to install whatever they want. In comparison, today's cell phones, smartphones, and the Apple iPhone are closed and controlled platforms. We have no idea what the killer apps for a Gphone might be, and that's what makes Android truly revolutionary.

Emphasis mine. It sounds so dramatic like this, but then again "to Google," a verb that didn't exist a few years ago, is now a mainstay of the daily lexicon. So I think Wu gets it right when he suggests that the "killer apps" could make the Android platform truly revolutionary. From a layman's view, the rate of information exchange over the past 20 years has been exponential. Trying to figure out what effect Google's newest toys will bring to that equation is like trying to predict what physicists might dazzle us with next. If it works--whatever it is, we'll soon quit puzzling over how it works and simply fall into the daily use patterns that characterize the digital age. And if it doesn't, well, something else will, even if we don't yet know what that will be, either. Regardless which way Google's grand plan breaks, the whole article is worth a read.

*Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School.