Google's First Open Source Product


So the fabled Googlephone has arrived. It's pretty much as people expected, with tight integration to Google's main services, including a rather nifty use of Google Street View.

It undoubtedly lacks the glamour of the iPhone, and even misses a trick or two in terms of basic mobile technology – Apple's use of the touchscreen seems superior – but that is mitigated to a certain extent by the presence of a keyboard for those of us who can't live without such things.

But maybe the most important fact about the G1 is that for the first time Google has shipped a major product that is open source. Until now, it has used open source to run most of its backroom (back hangar?) infrastructure, and has contributed bits and bobs to the open source world, but nothing on the scale of the code inside the G1.

This is really an important moment, because it sees the bellwether Google putting its name publicly and wholeheartedly behind the free software idea.

That's going to be good for open source just in terms of the validation and positive PR it represents. But, of course, it's much more than that. By choosing open source for its mobile plans, Google is throwing its weight behind an evolving platform. This is something that those who make glib comparisons with Apple iPhone tend to forget: the latter is just a product, whereas Android is an ecosystem.

There will soon be dozens of phones based on the Android code, which should kick-start a kind of Darwinian race on the hardware side that Apple's locked-down world can never enjoy. I expect the difference between the open and closed approaches to be even more stark on the software side.

Even before the G1 appeared, there were loud rumblings of discontent among the developer community about the heavy-handed and arbitrary way that Apple manages the process for approving third-party apps for the iPhone. Then, there was not much they could do about it; now, there is.

The downside of this freedom is that there will be a lot of rubbish written for the Android platform. But that doesn't matter, any more than it matters for GNU/Linux apps or Firefox extensions. Nobody is forcing you to use this stuff; instead, people will select the best and ignore the worst – software natural selection at its finest.

The point is, there are fewer barriers to unknown coders creating killer apps for the Android platform, so it is more likely that something truly new and exciting will emerge here rather than on the controlled, buttoned-down iPhone system.

The other thing to remember about Android is that as free software, it can be taken and used for anything – you aren't obliged to crank out just phones. This opens up even more surprising uses of the code – how about home automation, or games platforms?

That potential richness can feed back into Googlephones in all sorts of ways – either directly, for example through seamless integration (controlling your house from your mobile), or indirectly, in terms of inspiring developers to be more creative.

This, for me, is the most exciting aspect of the G1's launch. It represents a fantastic opportunity to conduct an important experiment, with open source's lightly controlled, decentralised development methodology pitted against Apple's extremely professional, but ultimately sclerotic authoritarianism. I know who I think will win....

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