Google unveiled their plans yesterday for what’s become rumored as the GPhone. The bottom line on the announcement is that Google’s work to date on a “GPhone” has only been internal prototypes and proofs of concept; from what Google has said, there won’t be a wireless phone displaying a Google logo. Google’s (stated) primary role in the “Gphone” is that of primary contributor (operating system, browser, many other key components) to the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). Even with that behind-the-scenes role, this class of devices, built with the OHA “toolset”, will almost certainly be tagged with the “Gphone” moniker. To me, it’s as inevitable as saying “BAND-AID” instead of “adhesive bandage;” people will just come to know these devices as “GPhones”, especially given the high profile of Apple’s iPhone.
The most exciting part of the Open Handset Alliance for enterprises is that the software of the Open Handset Alliance will be open source. While it would be even more exciting if the hardware was also open source, the announcements seemed careful to state that while the software will be open source, actual manufacturing of a Gphone will be left up to a handful of manufacturers - HTC, LGE Electronics, Motorola, and Samsung. While it’s been possible for very large enterprises to create highly-customized wireless devices, smaller enterprises that can’t justify a very expensive development process either had to make do with already-implemented software or semi-custom software development such as using a software development kit for Windows Mobile to create unique applications.
It seems to me that with the advent of the Open Handset Alliance’s open source model, enterprises of all sizes will finally be able to realize full integration between custom enterprise applications and field / mobile users because enterprises can now easily create versions of their custom enterprise applications that operate seamlessly with mobile devices and personnel in the field.
While much of these sorts of applications are now migrating to Web-based systems, and mobile devices such as the iPhone make using Web-based systems in the field much easier, there are still incredible numbers of custom enterprise applications out there that don’t easily lend themselves to being “webified.” Enterprises can now create a device that does what they want it to do - no more, no less. For example, an enterprise may well want a device that doesn’t resemble a wireless phone at all, but instead presents a very simple menu of fixed functions, rather than looking like a conventional wireless phone with yet another (custom) application. Indeed, such a custom device might not even be a wireless phone in the conventional sense.
One example that leaps to mind from my past as a bus commuter is a simple and inexpensive display system (powered by a simple, small, inexpensive solar panel and battery) attached to bus stop signs that continuously displays the estimated time of arrival of the next few buses for each route that stops at that particular bus stop. Each transit system has unique requirements and a potential market of a few thousand, or at most a few tens of thousands of units. That’s too small a market for handset manufacturers used to making millions of (inexpensive) units, and custom manufacturers would need to charge too much per unit to make it feasible. But the economies of an open source “ecosystem” such as the Open Handset Alliance may well make such wireless devices feasible.
It’s also refreshing to see Wireless Telephony Carriers (Wireless Operators) — Sprint / Nextel and T-Mobile in the US — as part of the Open Handset Alliance. That seems to indicate that not only is a highly-customizable Gphone application possible, but also going beyond the application software to be able to modify the operating system. That combination of software and OS can then be “baked into” a Open Handset Alliance device manufacturer, and the resulting fully-custom device can, presumably, be cleanly and easily made operational on the networks of Open Handset Alliance carrier partners.
That particular paradigm isn’t new. In Europe and Asia, wireless handsets are bought off the shelf by individuals; the individual inserts a new or existing Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card; and the device is activated. There’s little or no direct interaction between the device manufacturer and carrier. What would be new with the Open Handset Alliance would be for those devices to be much more customized and unique because inexpensive open source development methods can finally be applied to developing cellular wireless devices.