Android, iPhone and the push for a real mobile Internet

Logo for Google's android mobile operating systemPlenty of “news” today about the mobile Internet, prompted by this Wall Street Journal piece on Google’s Android mobile phone operating system.  The Journal’s story is chock full of details of the internal struggles of Android developers and carriers that may support Android phone. While Google had said phones running Android would be available in the “second half” of 2008, now it looks the first phone will be available in the fourth quarter. Seems like a lot of sound and fury signifying not much.

There’s also a nice profile of Android lead dude Andy Rubin in the July issue of Wired magazine (not yet online – blech). Aside from a few goofy factual errors (Cut and paste among different mobile apps has been available on Palm for ages and probably on Windows Mobile, too), the Rubin story gets much closer to the important big picture underlying a lot of the coverage of Android and other mobile platforms like the iPhone.

The bigger story, the meta-story, if you will, remains the same as it has been since the Internet first went mobile. The carriers want to keep everything locked down with all profits flowing their way. That’s why mobile music sales remain in a quagmire — gotta give the carriers their cut and protect $2.99 sales of ring tones. It’s about as un-Internet a business model as you can get. Thus, with Android, you have handset makers not wanting to anger carriers and carriers delaying things to “customize” Android for their particular networks. Dana Blankenhorn has it right in his blog post this morning: “These problems would not exist if the government simply set standards for hardware and opened up the spectrum to competition.”

The two biggest carriers, AT&T and Verizon, say they aren’t supporting Android as of yet. I can’t figure out how that squares with their prior claims that they had opened their networks to any compatible phone. In December, AT&T was telling anyone who’d listen that you could use “any handset on our network you want…We don’t prohibit it, or even police it.” Verizon used a bit more legalize but declared that customers would get the option to use “wireless devices, software and applications not offered by the company.” Said devices would have to abide by a “minimum technical standard” and pass tests at Verizon’s own testing lab.

But Google has a long-term plan that may route around all this nonsense and foot dragging. The company convinced the Federal Communications Commission to impose open access requirements on the new swath of spectrum auctioned last year in the 700 Mhz frequency range. Ultimately, Verizon bought the license. Assuming regulators stick to their guns, Android devices should gain free rein once the 700 Mhz offering comes online in a couple of years.

Too much of the coverage, however, pits Google’s efforts against Apple’s iPhone. In the real world, both are moving the industry in the right direction. From an Internet user’s point of view, they are complementary not contradictory. Just as with the iTunes music store, Steve Jobs got incredible concessions from the cellular powers that be to improve the situation for ordinary consumers. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot (I still can’t get over that the iPhone’s bluetooth implementation is more crippled and limited than the one in my Verizon Treo). But it’s progress that will grow more powerful as the iPhone becomes more and more popular.

In a sense, this struggle is much the same as the battle over broadband when cable and telephone companies first started rolling out high-speed connections back in the 1990s. There was the distinct possibility that the owners of those fat pipes were going to mess with content, filter web sites or restrict usage. After millions of dollars spent by all sides lobbying, the industry chose to go down a (mostly) open path. Let’s hope mobile can go the same way. The emergence of the next Facebook, eBay and Google depend on it.