When Google announced the Open Handset Alliance (a group of wireless industry players looking to get their names associated with Google's Android open mobile platform project), true open-source smartphones were a great idea that seemed far from commercial realization. This will change on October 22, when the T-Mobile G1 – the product of an exclusive partnership among T-Mobile, Google, and Asian handset manufacturer HTC -- becomes the first shipping mobile device based on the Android platform.
The Android platform is open source -- Google has committed to publishing the source code for the entire platform, not just an application-level SDK. In the words of one developer interviewed for the T-Mobile launch event, "There's nobody telling you 'you can't do that'."
[ Ahead of the Curve: Tom Yager's hands-on first look at the T-Mobile G1 ]
In truth, T-Mobile is placing limits on T-Mobile G1 users and developers. While the device is open to international roaming within T-Mobile networks, and its baseband radio is compatible with standards used by other GSM and UMTS networks worldwide, the G1 will be locked to T-Mobile networks. T-Mobile has also decided to prohibit the device's use as a so-called "Internet modem," a service that the industry refers to as tethering. Some other handsets, including Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Nokia models, will tether to laptops and other Bluetooth and USB-equipped computers to a cellular data network. If Android is a truly open platform, a rookie programmer could work around the tethering restriction. To put teeth in the tethering ban, provisions in T-Mobile's data plans subject subscribers who transfer more than 1GB of data per month to dial-up speed limitations as well as possible suspension of their coverage. Some users will bristle at being subjected to any limit, but 1GB is extremely generous for a mobile device, and at least T-Mobile's limit is explicitly stated unlike some competitors'. With its built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, home and office networks, as well as airport and restaurant hot spots, will satisfy T-Mobile G1 users' appetite for downloadable media without eating into their monthly bit budget.
Carrier locking, T-Mobile's temporary Android exclusive, and prohibition of tethered use will generate controversy among open-source fans who will likely dominate the T-Mobile G1's initial market. Even so, these protections are needed. Without them, Android has grim commercial prospects because T-Mobile and Google, neither of which is a non-profit operation, have underwritten this effort for three years, and they need assured payback on their R & D. If gray market T-Mobile G1 (a.k.a. HTC Dream) handsets become available that are unlocked to operate on competing networks, T-Mobile and Google, along with all of the third parties that hope to charge for Android software and services offered through Google's Android Market, will end up in the red, and Android will flop. It behooves Android developers who want the device to succeed to further, not thwart, T-Mobile's and Google's efforts to make money with this and future devices.