Google's Android Gains More Powerful Followers

Today is a dark day for Nokia and Microsoft: Telco Vodafone, equipment maker Ericsson and handset maker Sony Ericsson have joined Google's camp in making rival cell-phone software.

Today is a dark day for Nokia and Microsoft: Telco Vodafone, equipment maker Ericsson and handset maker Sony Ericsson have joined Google’s camp in making rival cell-phone software.

Today, Open Handset Alliance (OHA), a Google-led consortium of companies developing mobile-phone software Android, announced 14 new members, these three huge companies among them. Other impressive additions include AKM Semiconductor Inc., ARM, ASUSTek Computer Inc., Atheros Communications, Borqs, Garmin International Inc., Huawei Technologies, Omron Software Co. Ltd, Softbank Mobile Corporation, Teleca AB and Toshiba Corporation.

What does it all mean? One, that sales of the first Android-based phone, the T-Mobile G1, must be going very well. Only available for sale since this fall, the iPhone-like device made by long-time OHA member HTC is expected to sell around 500,000 units this year. Now, handset makers like new member Ericsson, which plans to release its Android device in mid-2009, want in on the action — particularly since the cost of Android-based handsets is lower than that of phones made with operating systems from Nokia and Microsoft, according to researcher NPD Group. Motorola recently announced it’s going to focus on Android come next year as well.

Second, and most important, carriers and handset makers who’ve just joined the Alliance are, in effect, expressing their dissatisfaction with Android’s long-established rivals, Nokia’s Symbian and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile software. And no wonder. Symbian is going through a major restructuring, and it’s unclear exactly what it will look like come next year. Microsoft has been losing developer interest, sources tell me.

The bottom line: Until today, Android’s future looked uncertain. Only a minor handset maker, HTC, was making Android-based phones. T-Mobile was the only carrier globally to offer G1, and only in a few markets, including the U.S. Motorola’s support helped but not that much, as the company is in a fragile financial state, and its own future is unclear. That’s why today’s announcement is so important. Vodafone’s support is huge. The carrier has 280 million customers worldwide. Sony Ericsson’s involvement is important as well (larger handset makers like LG are already part of the Alliance). Clearly, big guns are joining this game, and lining up their pawns on Google’s side.

A side note: I find it interesting to see Austek and Toshiba in the new members list. It’s long been expected that Android will be used not only in phones but also in netbooks, which are tiny laptops with screens of less than 10.2 inches. Austek is the largest player in the netbooks category, and today’s announcement could indicate that Android-based netbooks may be coming out, and soon.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.