Google goes crowdsourcing for an iPhone ‘killer’

I recently mentioned the rumours surrounding the possible release of a Google gPhone which would be in competition to the Apple iPhone. It appears that this is not going to happen now, at least not in the sense of a distinct, hold-in-your hand, physical product.

Instead Google have announced its commitment to the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), a group of thirty or so mobile and software development companies which aims to develop mobile phone operating systems and applications. The group’s website describes their key goal as to develop “greater openness in the mobile ecosystem”. They are backing this up with their key product: Android, an open source development platform for phones, based on Linux. This will run on lots of different mobile phones from a range of manufacturers, rather than a single gPhone.

You can see the difference between this approach and Apple’s. The iPhone is closed to third party developers. But OHA talks about openness and developing a platform that anyone involved in open source development can use to add to the number of mobile phone applications. It is throwing the doors open and letting in all comers, much as Linux did in its hey-day.

To show how committed it is, Google is treading the increasingly popular crowdsourcing route i.e. sourcing solutions from people on the Internet rather than doing everything in-house. They have announced cash prizes for software developers who come up with innovative new applications using the new Android system. Ten million dollars is up for grabs, with individual prizes varying up to $250,000. Sergey Brin, Co-founder and President, Technology, Google, has said: “We’ve built some interesting applications for Android but the best applications are not here yet and that’s because they’re going to be written by [third party] developers”.

Meanwhile, following intense pressure, Apple has revised its initial approach and has just promised an Apple Software Development Kit (SDK) in 2008, which will allow developers to create third party applications. It won’t be open source and Apple will have final say over whether a new application is allowed onto the phone.

Does any of this matter to non-geeks who inhabit the world outside the software industry? I think it does, because it neatly demonstrates two emerging ways of doing things which will have ramifications far beyond the computer industry.

I am an Apple fan and they have consistently demonstrated outstanding innovation over many years. But this success has been built on being closed and proprietary. There is now, though, an interesting ‘battle’ lining up around the mobile phone: Apple’s more closed, proprietary, but highly engineered platform vs the open, semi-feral world of crowd-developed, open source software represented by Android.

Opinions vary as to how this will pan out. Robert Scoble, a well known, ex-Microsoft, technology blogger, is distinctly unimpressed by Google’s efforts. Wired magazine thinks that the application development community will quickly embrace Apple’s SDK. For my tuppence-worth I simply note that the wind of change is with Google: the social world of Web 2.0, open source and peer-production are the zeitgeist. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is going to produce the best, most secure products.

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