Mobile giants Vodafone and Sony Ericsson join Google Android alliance

10 Dec 2008

Up to a dozen major mobile industry giants, including Vodafone and Sony Ericsson, have joined Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA), adding extra impetus to the handset operating system’s potential global adoption.

The OHA, the Google-led consortium to establish Android as the de facto standard on mobile phones, yesterday announced 14 new members; among these are Vodafone and Sony Ericsson.

This announcement signals greater confidence in the OHA and the Android platform within the mobile industry, and casts some doubts over the longevity of Vodafone’s involvement with LiMo (an industry consortium dedicated to creating a Linux-based operating system for mobile devices).

Adam Leach, principal analyst at Ovum, believes the extended membership will lead to a greater number of Android devices in the market next year, and could lead to much-needed consolidation in the mobile Linux space.

“Vodafone believes that Android is proving itself technically and commercially,” Leach said.

“Vodafone has previously pursued its own strategy for developing an open alternative to vendor-owned platforms (such as S60 and Windows Mobile), and this led to the formation of the LiMo Foundation, which has successfully built momentum behind its platform and currently has 48 member companies and 15 LiMo-enabled handsets.

“However, LiMo is currently lacking a convincing developer story; an SDK (software developer kit)  is due this year, although it is now more likely to be delivered next year.”

Leach said that the developer perspective is proving ever more important in driving uptake of devices and platforms, as Apple has shown with its success with the iPhone and the App Store.

Third-party applications are beginning to drive revenues for mobile network operators and developers, as well as driving demand among consumers. Google and the OHA have a growing developer community for Android, which is being catalysed by strong device sales of the G1 (the first Android-based device, with estimated shipments of one million by the end of 2008) and an open process for developers to distribute and sell applications through the Android Market.

“Vodafone sees it as strategically important to have a platform for its own applications and services not owned by a potential competitor, but it does not believe that LiMo will impact business during 2009. However, Android is in a better position to impact sales next year.

“There is a strong rationale for this; there is a plethora of OEMs committed to making Android devices next year, and Vodafone will be able to take its pick of those OEMs and potentially launch an exclusive device for its network (and hopefully repeat T-Mobile’s success with the G1).

“To achieve a fast time to market, Vodafone will have to make some sacrifices; namely, it will have to provide access to Google’s services via the default set of Android applications,” said Leach.

He also said the move to Android demonstrates a major about-turn for mobile maker Sony Ericsson, which, up until now, has been slow to show support for Android.

“At a recent analyst briefing, Sony Ericsson indicated that it was reluctant to use Android as it did not want to provide Google with an opportunity to use its phones as a platform for Google’s services. Sony Ericsson knows the strategic value of controlling the user experience of its phones.

Joining the OHA is a strong signal that Sony Ericsson is comfortable that it has the ability and the freedom to use Android to deploy its own applications and services, and that Android is not just a vehicle for Google.

“Sony Ericsson is struggling to return to profitability and again, like Vodafone, may see Android as a tactical opportunity for 2009. It is a long-time supporter of Symbian, but the Symbian Foundation will not be operational until the second half of 2009, and it has had to look at alternative platforms,” Leach added.

Leach said that the OHA has the opportunity to turn short-term need into long-term support. “Google and its OHA partners have the opportunity to build a critical mass of supporting handsets during 2009. This will be the real litmus test for Google. If it achieves this momentum in the handset market in 2009, then it has the potential to challenge Nokia and the Symbian Foundation for dominance in the handset software market.

“In addition, collaboration between Vodafone and OHA could lead to Android runtime running on LiMo-compliant handsets (as they are both built on Linux and share other common components).

“Such a move would reduce fragmentation within the mobile Linux community and help stimulate the developer community, which would benefit all OHA members and the wider mobile community,” Leach concluded.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years