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Google's open-source platform to get in game, but HTC and T-Mobile aren't Dream partners
Years from now, the wireless industry will look back on 2008 as "The Year that Everything Changed."
Apple's Apps Store and new iPhone might have been enough to earn this year that moniker.
But now comes the news that Google's Android platform is going from being a promise on the horizon to a mobile OS on a real phone.
With the software developer kit now available, users of the first Android-ready phone, HTC's Dream (shown at left), will likely have some apps to actually use on it.
That is, of course, if they can convince developers to abandon their iPhone project and go open source.
Apple's device has already loosened the vice-like control that U.S. carriers have had over what software can go on which handsets accessing their network.
And it's raised the bar for the Web-browsing experience consumers expect from their phones.
Already, it has started to create its own ecosystems, with a growing list of mobile ad and analytics firms focused on creating products that take advantage of the iPhone features.
One venture capitalist who invests in mobile says the iPhone is such a game-changer that phone makers like Research in Motion and Nokia need to substantially improve their products within a year to stop Apple's momentum.
"You can survive one Christmas season but not two" with a phone that is perceived to be lagging rival technology, says Rich Wong, a partner at Accel Partner. "The treadmill is getting faster -- just three years ago, the RAZR was the hot phone," says Wong.
While it has given consumers a wide array of apps and made it much easier to find them, however, the Apps Store and the iPhone still have some characteristics of the proprietary system that has always held sway in U.S. wireless market.
This is where Android has a chance to push the industry even further into the open realm.
Since it's open-source software, it promises to work with any software on any Android handset made by members of the Open Handset Alliance.
Google intends for Android to operate on any phone and on any carrier's network that will support it. T-Mobile looks to be first in line, as its already said it will have a Web-based application store and plans to launch the Dream phone internationally by year's end.
While Android will be in the game, though, it won't have the kind of out-the-gate impact that the AppsStore has, unless it comes up with more partners among carriers or handset makers.
T-Mobile is showing it's not afraid to move aggressively with its own aplication store, but it still has less than half the customers of AT&T.
While I haven't seen one yet, it's hard to imagine the Dream having the kind of functionality and ease of use of the iPhone.
Google is taking a sizable risk if it rolls out Android with this one phone and this one carrier.
Mobile consumers and the press who follow the industry have become as fickle as those following the fashion industry. Think how fast the Razr went from star to has-been. A bad launch for Android could create enough negative buzz that it could slow the adoption rate.
And on the developer side, many of those developing iPhone apps are experienced and loyal Apple developers who've been waiting several years to take a shot at making a mobile app for a Steve Jobs device.
Even if it does do well, it's unlikely to blunt what's sure to be a mad holiday buying spree of iPhones.
Yet the Android developer community may surprise. Google received over 1,700 submissions for an Android challenge contest back in April. If enough of them are a hit, and T-Mobile and HTC do a decent job on the handset-carrier connection, Android could shave some market share from other handset makers whose phones are running under the old proprietary model.
AT&T looks set to benefit for the next two years thanks to all its new iPhone wireless plans. If T-Mobile can boost its data revenue and cachet by being the first Android carrier, Verizon and Sprint may face intense pressure to open up their business models.
If they don't, they might be remembered as the two carriers who missed out on the year of change.
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