Google trips, Apple laughs

iPhone2_advanceAlthough it has been drowned out by the buzz over the 3G iPhone, the promise of Google’s upcoming open-source mobile platform, “Android,” has kept Apple execs watchful. Aiming to do for the cellphone what Windows did for the PC (i.e., own it), Android seems poised to steal…er, leverage what works on the iPhone, and then roll it out across carriers—effectively steamrolling the iPhone in the process.

Wired Magazine’s Daniel Roth articulates the thinking well in a recent article, writing, “Those hoping for a new gadget to rival the iPhone finally understood that Google had something radically different in mind. Apple’s device was an end in itself—a self-contained, jewel-like masterpiece locked in a sleek protective shell. Android was a means, a seed intended to grow an entire new wireless family tree.”

If anyone has the capital and the clout to pull it off, it’s Google. And watching the demo of the Android system is enough to get any mobile pundit off and pontificating. But the Mountain View, CA-based search titan is having a tough few weeks.

The Wall Street Journal embarrassingly revealed the roadblocks Google is hitting in trying to get this platform onto a phone near you. Even the first sentence in the article had to have made their marketing folks cringe: “Google Inc. is learning that changing the cellphone industry isn’t easy.”

Indeed it’s not. The first and biggest hurdle, as always, is with the carriers. And Google has been having all kinds of trouble getting the big operators to play nicely: The country’s two biggest carriers—Verizon and AT&T, with a combined market share of 54%—turned their respective noses up at an Android deal. “There wasn’t anything viable we were willing to entertain,” Verizon Wireless spokesperson Jeffrey Nelson flatly told reporters.

So Google went with the third and fourth best, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel. But T-Mobile won’t have any Android phones ready before the fourth quarter. And since the German-based carrier has been sucking up so much of Google’s time with its demands, Sprint won’t have anything at all this year. (That is, if they don’t get bought before then).

On top of this, if Google hopes to build a vibrant software platform—which requires a vibrant developer community—they’ve got to sort out the snarls that the coders are running into. As the Journal reports, “The Android software has yet to win broad support from large mobile-software developers. Some say it is difficult to develop programs while Google is making changes as it finishes its own software…” Andy Rubin, director of mobile platforms at Google, says managing the software-development effort while giving its partners the opportunity to ask for new features takes time. “This is where the pain happens,” he says.

(iStock)Apple, by contrast, has a waiting list of carriers around the world willing to sell the iPhone, and thousands of programmers eager to write for the device. At its developers conference two weeks ago, in fact, Apple had to turn hundreds away after the first 5,200 spots were filled.

As an overall platform, Android could be good; even great. But the key advantage Apple has is that they control the product from soup to nuts: Hardware, software, packaging, marketing, all of it. Google, by contrast, is beholden to whatever the carriers and the handset makers want to do with the Android system. And judging by what they’ve done to date, that would most likely be ugly, confusing, and resistant to change.

Google could dodge this eventuality by building their own “gPhone”—something they’ve been insistent on not doing. But given the way things are going, this may be all that prevents Android from becoming a watered-down, clunky, unintuitive, shadow of itself. To put it nicely.