Game-Changer

Will the GooglePhone matter? Last week, Google officially unveiled its long-rumored mobile phone software. Dubbed Android, the Linux-based software stack is being backed by more than 30 partners, including handset makers Motorola, Samsung, LG and HTC, and service providers Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and NTT DoCoMo.

But no Nokia. No AT&T or Verizon. No Apple or Palm. No Symbian, Microsoft or RIM. Without them, will Android matter at all?

Hold that thought.

The day after Googles Android announcement, the One Laptop Per Child Foundation said that its low-cost, Linux-based laptops for kids are finally rolling off the assembly line in China. The little green XO laptops, with their built-in mesh networking and low-power-consumption design, will start shipping to Uruguay and Mongolia shortly.

Two years ago, when MITs Nicholas Negroponte first started showing prototypes of the XO, nobody in the IT business took it seriously. It was too small for adults to use comfortably, too toylike in appearance, too under­powered to run commercial software. And it was being developed by academics who had never designed a real product, much less sold a single unit. Theres just no market for it, the bigwigs said.

Intel boss Craig Barrett went out of his way to sneer at the XO, calling it the $100 gadget. Of course, Intel rival AMD was supplying the CPUs for the XO. And Intel had its own low-end laptop, the Classmate PC, which it was trying to sell to foreign governments to distribute to students without much success.

Two years later, the XOs price has ballooned to almost $200. And Negroponte, who circled the globe talking up the XO and getting handshake agreements from governments, has discovered that doesnt often translate into an actual purchase.

But those two years have raised the concept of low-end laptops from an academic fantasy to a marketplace reality.

Today, Intel is selling Classmate PCs by the thousands at about $300 each (its biggest deal is 700,000 in Pakistan), has joined Negropontes foundation and may use some of the XOs technology in its own products.

Meanwhile, Asustek is now selling an XO-like laptop called the Eee PC in Taiwan for about $250 to consumers. And in the U.S., Wal-Mart has been selling Acer laptops for under $350.

And starting today, U.S. and Canadian consumers can even get an XO as long as theyre willing to pay $399, so a second XO can be shipped to a third-world student.

But before XO has even shipped, its already a game-changer. That nonexistent market for a low-end laptop for kids? Now it exists.

Funny how competition will do that.

Which brings us back to Googles Android. Lets face it: Google has about as much experience making mobile phones as Negroponte had making laptops in 2005. Sure, Google has money to burn, and it has lined up partnerships with major players in the mobile business but not the top U.S. players.

Can Android still make a difference? Sure. Android doesnt even have to win. It just has to be in the game.

What does Android promise? Lots of third- party applications and better Web browsing, mainly. Thats what Nokia, Apple, Symbian, AT&T and the rest will be scrambling to match in the year before Android-based phones hit the market.

So those new capabilities will be out there anyway. And since Google makes its money from ads on Web pages, the 800-pound gorilla of dot-coms wins even if Android loses.

The rest of us? We get Androids benefits either way, too easier development, more usable Web apps, the things that can make smart phones better business tools.

All because Google isnt afraid to compete.

And theres nothing the matter with that at all.

Frank Hayes is Computerworlds senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@ computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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