I’ve posted a couple of times about how kewl I think my Android G1 is. But I’m not jazzed about a mere gadget; the really exciting thing about Android is going to be the second- and third-order effects of the software, and how these tie into Google’s strategic interests and the future of open source.
I’m going to start with the relatively far future, like five or even possibly ten years out, because I’m pretty sure my projections for it are very similar to Sergei and Larry’s and that they are what is actually driving Google’s corporate strategy.
Cellphone descendants are going to eat the PC. There will come a day when you carry your primary computer with you in your pocket as a matter of course — but not your primary display/keyboard/mouse. Those will be Bluetooth or son-of-Bluetooth devices (don’t hassle me about video bandwidth, okay? — I know what the issues are) that people leave lying around like we leave notepads and pencils; you will network with them by walking up to one, at which point your cell will do a crypto exchange and attach the device. When you’re done, you walk away. Of course, Internet will be ubiquitous. These devices will never be off-net unless you tell them to be.
Now. You are Google. You make your money by selling ads on the most successful search engine in the world. One of your strategic imperatives is therefore this: you cannot allow anyone to operate a technological or regulatory chokepoint between you and people doing searches, otherwise they’ll stunt your earnings growth and siphon off your revenues. That’s why you ran a politico-financial hack on the Federal auction of radio spectrum to ensure a certain minimum level of openness. And that’s why you are, very quietly, the single most determined and effective advocate of network neutrality.
Now, combine these two visions and you’ll understand why Google is doing Android. Their goal is to create the business conditions that will maximize their ad revenue not just two years out but ten years out. Those business conditions are, basically, an Internet that is as friction-free, cheap, and difficult to lock down as the underlying technology can make it.
Under this strategy, Android wins in multiple ways. In the longer term, it gives Google a strong shot at defining the next generation of dominant computing platforms in such a way that nothing but customer demand will be able to control those platforms.
In the shorter term, it outflanks the Baby Bells. As web traffic shifts to Googlephones (and things like them), telco efforts to double-dip carriage charges by extracting quality-of-service fees from Google and other content providers will become both technologically more difficult and politically impossible. By depriving them of the ability to lock in customers to gated and proprietary services, Android will hammer both the wire-line and wireless telcos into being nothing but low-margin bit-haulage providers, exactly where Google wants them. (A leading indicator will be the collapse of the blatant absurdity that is the ring-tones market, doomed when anyone can hook MP3s of their choosing to phone events.)
As bad as this sounds for the telcos, Microsoft gets outflanked and screwed far worse. As web traffic shifts to Googlephones (and things like them), IE7 and Windows will be about as effective at market control as a buggy whip at a Formula One race — how does it matter that you have most of the PC browser market when a steadily increasing proportion of browsing is done from phones? Microsoft’s efforts to move to a cloud-centric software-as-service strategy will also be severely and probably terminally damaged, because they’ll face a very painful choice. They can stay PC-only and hemhorrage users defecting to cellphone-based services, or they can deploy on Android only to face increasing pressure from business customers who will, quite reasonably, wonder why the service clients and protocols aren’t as open as the rest of the Android platform. (Another leading indicator is what pervasive Gmail will do to Outlook.)
One of the coolest things about this chain of dominoes is that Google itself doesn’t have to win or end up with control of anything for the future to play out as described. It’s not even necessary that Android itself be the eventual dominant cellphone platform. All they have to do is force the competitive conditions so that whatever does end up dominating is as open as Android is. Given that one of the largest handset makers is already being forced to open source their stack for other reasons (Nokia figured out that they can’t afford to hire enough developers to do all their device ports in-house) this outcome seems certain.
For the open-source community, it’s all good. The things Google needs to do with Android for selfish business-strategic reasons are exactly what we want, too. This isn’t an accident, because we’re both pulling in the direction of reducing the effects of market friction, transaction costs, and asymmetries of power and information. If Google didn’t exist, the open-source community would need to invent it.
Oh. Wait. We did invent them. Where do you suppose Sergei and Larry came from? Why do you suppose they’ve been running Summer of Code and hiring a noticeable fraction of the most capable open-source developers on the planet? Well, here’s a flare-lit clue: before those two guys were famous, they sent me fan mail once.
That’s why I think those two know exactly what they’re doing. And that, if it’s true that their business strategy requires them to be open source’s ally, I think I can be allowed a guess that they chose their business strategy so that would be true. “Don’t be evil”; they’re not angels, but they’re trying.
And, from where I sit? All I can say is this: Bwahahaha. The sinister master plan for world domination – it is working!