Floating All Boats: Local Companies Have Their Own Reasons for Joining Google’s Open Source Handset Alliance

Google may be the instigator behind the new Open Handset Alliance, which plans to create an open-source operating system and application software for mobile phones, but alliance members contributing to the so-called Android platform have their own futures in mind, not necessarily Google’s.

After yesterday’s official launch of the alliance, I spoke with representatives of Boston-area companies that have joined the organization, all of whom told me that they see the project largely as a vehicle for getting their software in front of more developers and consumers in an industry where a few gatekeepers—namely, the big handset makers and cellular carriers—have traditionally controlled which applications reach the market.

“This is really something that is going to break the logjam,” says Christopher Payne-Taylor, director of public relations at Sonivox, a Somerville startup that makes audio software for mobile devices and is one of three local companies that have joined the alliance as founding members. (Nuance Communications and NMS Communications are the other two.) “It’s not only going to open up new avenues for technical development, but it’s going to create new paradigms and new business models in arenas such as advertising and entertainment,” Payne-Taylor says. “In our little niche as developers of an audio platform, that is a very exciting proposition.”

For months, rumors have swirled about a secret Google project to build a “G Phone”—a mobile phone with a Google-built operating system, some of it allegedly under preparation at Google’s research lab in Cambridge. But as it turns out, the company was busy signing up companies to contribute to Android, an open source “software stack” that includes an operating system, middleware for allowing the operating system to talk to various applications, and applications themselves, along with various user interfaces. In spirit, Android will be similar to the LAMP stack—a combination of open-source products, including the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, the MySQL database system, and the PHP web programming language, that has made it easy for thousands of businesses to create sophisticated database-driven websites.

“Today’s announcement is more ambitious than any single ‘Google Phone’ that the press has been speculating about over the past few weeks,” said Google CEO Eric Schmidt in a statement yesterday. “Our vision is that the powerful platform we’re unveiling will power thousands of different phone models.” Some 34 companies, including handset manufacturers Motorola, Samsung, LG Electronics, and HTC, are contributing to the Android platform—and the first Android phones should be available in the second half of 2008, Google said.

Android LogoFor some companies, contributing to Android is their first opportunity to get around the gorillas of the wireless industry—AT&T, Verizon, and other carriers—who have historically dictated which software applications handset manufacturers can put on their phones and even which programs are accessible from the phones’ “decks” or top-level menus. “In the mobile industry, there are a lot of constraints,” Sonivox’s Payne-Taylor told me. “Most of your readers will be familiar with the laundry list” of functions they can’t access on their phones because the big carriers won’t let them, such as GPS location-finding functions.

Sonivox’s “audioINSIDE” software plays back audio recorded in the MIDI digital format and synchronizes it with onscreen animations. For example, the mobile game GuitarStar, from Sonivox subsidary AdME, pits players against an animated rock guitarist; points are scored by clicking the “fire” button when a moving guitar pick hits the center of an onscreen target. The company is contributing basic components of the audioINSIDE software to the Open Handset Alliance, which will include it in a software developers kit to be available for preview as early as next week. And that will only help Sonivox, Payne-Taylor says. “With this platform, every developer involved in Android will be able to access our technology for MIDI audio and utilize it in their games or entertainment content. It’s open and it’s free, but it’s exactly like when a lot of open-source technology first became available over the Internet—it allowed a broader proliferation of platforms and applications. It’s a rising tide that floats all boats.”

Nuance Communications in Burlington, another founding member of the alliance, has already seen its voice-recognition and text-to-speech software proliferate to hundreds of handsets, so it’s contributing to Android for a slightly different set of reasons. With revenues from mobile software expected to hit $200 million next year, Nuance is one of the largest providers of software to the mobile industry. “We already have relationships with all the major manufacturers and carriers,” says Richard Mack, Nuance’s director of corporate communications. But contributing the company’s core speech recognition and speech synthesis software to Android “is an opportunity to introduce speech to a whole host of new developers who will be exposed to the new platform,” Mack says. “Nuance and Google both believe that speech is a critical component of the mobile web, and having core speech functionality at the platform level will be important as we begin to build these next-generation applications.”

For Nuance, making some of its software free through Android now boils down to an opportunity to up-sell later. “We’ve provided the basic componentry that will, we believe, inspire developers to build applications that incorporate speech—and then to take full advantage of it by looking to Nuance to help them add additional functionality on top of the platform,” says Mack.

On this point, the language of Nuance’s press release about the alliance yesterday is remarkably clear: “Beyond the open source technology, to truly unlock the potential of the mobile Web and take full advantage of the fundamental speech capabilities, Nuance will offer a complete portfolio of language models, services, applications and advanced technology programs”—including speech engines, mobile music search, and Web search applications, messaging and dictation services, and “the professional services needed to develop, optimize and deploy robust mobile speech applications built on top of the Android platform.”

The third local company that’s part of the Open Handset Alliance, NMS Communications, makes a platform called Mobile Place that allows mobile phone users to personalize certain features of their phones. For example, NMS uses the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) standard to deliver customized “ringback tones,” songs that mobile users can hear in place of the traditional ringing sound on the line when they’re calling another party.

When I contacted NMS communications director Christine Krajewski yesterday, she said that the company is “really excited about being part of the alliance” and that it will have more to say within a couple of months about what parts of its technology it plans to contribute to Android. But in Google’s press release about the alliance, Joel Hughes, the company’s general manager for mobile applications, said “NMS Communications is pleased to add our industry-leading IMS framework to the Open Handset Alliance initiative. I believe this Alliance will unlock unprecedented innovation in mobile operating systems benefiting operators, consumers and suppliers alike.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Floating All Boats: Local Companies Have Their Own Reasons for Joining Google’s Open Source Handset Alliance”

  1. Certainly the Google OHA allows founding members to get their product offerings in front of more eyeballs but I would like to correct the interpretation of SONiVOX comments in this regard. “Breaking the logjam” is about application developers finally having a common, open, software platform to develop for, and a distribution and commercialization paradigm that allows those applications to make it to market. Mobile application developers know well the nightmares of porting to hundreds of handsets, squeezing functionality down to its least common demoninator, and if you get that right, having to convince 3 or 4 large corporate carriers to distribute and sell your application, while requiring a labyrinth of technical requirements and an unnegotiable percent of sales. It’s a development and business model that excludes small companies, true innovation and a truely competitive marketplace. The Google Android platform aims to level this playing field and as a consequence bring truely exciting mobile handsets, appications, and end user experience to mobile customers. That is the primary and most exciting reason SONiVOX chose to contribute its mobile product offerings to the OHA. -Jennifer Hruska, President & Founder, SONiVOX

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Jennifer, thanks so much for reading Xconomy and for registering your comment. I think our interpretations are pretty similar. Android is a big deal because it will help to unleash all of the software innovation that the big carriers have been suppressing. That can only benefit alliance members, especially the smaller companies like Sonivox.