Another day, another mobile-phone consortium

6 November 2007

Blimey, is there another mobile-phone software consortium? That's another one to add to the list. And, like the rest of them, the Open Handset Alliance is going to have to work miracles to avoid the curse of the phone-software consortium: lots of early buzz; very little in the delivery department.

Phone makers want two things: to create a must-have product that nobody else can make; and to spend next to no money making it. They haven't quite worked out that the two are mutually exclusive. But they are working very hard on the second thing on the list, as can be seen by yet more endorsements of yet another phone-software consortium. The only thing that's different about the latest effort is that we have a new player to consider: Google, which will offer access to remote applications over a highly unreliable connection. Genius. You kind of hope that they have something like Adobe's AIR up their sleeve or this thing is dead before even leaves the lab.

The rest of the cast is a list of the usual suspects, particularly serial joiner Motorola. That, perhaps, is the biggest warning sign over the Android 'platform'. Motorola has tried just about everything in phone software but it's yet to find a winner. The company seems unable to find anything in software to match its ability to design pretty, shiny cases.

Motorola has flip-flopped its way through the whole mobile-phone software business. It joined the consortium that funded Symbian but left, frustrated with the pace of development at the software company.

Motorola spent money on its own Java operating system for phones. Motorola ploughed money into Linux. It bought UK software specialist TTPCom. It got back into the Symbian game, but purely as a licensee rather than an investor. It recently took on half of UIQ – the Symbian-based user interface – from Sony Ericsson. It joined Limo. It's now joined the Open Handset Alliance. Oh yeah, and it makes some phones that run Windows Mobile. Did I leave anything out? And i haven't included some of the low-level specs consortia such as the Open Mobile Alliance and MIPI.

For reasons best known to themselves, phone makers continue to act as though you can assemble software for their products like rearranging Lego bricks. This is despite the fact that the hardware is sprouting additional microprocessors at a frightening rate, all of which introduce synchronisation and integration problems. These things are not pretty on the inside.

Even when they buy software from one source, they complain about the integration time. Nokia engineers are not exactly wild about the time it takes to port SymbianOS to a new handset. It doesn't get any easy trying to do a porting job on some kit of parts from a well-meaning consortium. It's hard to disagree with Fake Steve Jobs' characterisation of some lurching, slobbering, stitched-together monster tripping over its own tongue.

The problem for the Open Handset Alliance, like all the others before it, is that there is no company in there that will take a lead. Software companies such as Wind River are happy to provide a bit of low-level infrastructure but they've all seen the Symbian story and know how expensive it is to produce a moderately cohesive phone environment. Even if there was such a leader, the others would fight that move because they feared the consequences. Nobody really likes dealing with Microsoft because of that. This alliance actually has shades of the Microsoft at Work debacle around it: the hardware makers joined so they'd have a chance of killing it from the inside rather than end up enslaved, although Microsoft at Work fell apart of its own volition remarkably quickly.

It's either that or they all decided on an Underpants Gnome strategy:

1) Get into bed with Google
2) ?
3) Profit!