Google Delivers Android Mobile OS to Developers

Google’s Android mobile operating system was made available under an open source license Tuesday morning.

Android leapfrogged the release of T-Mobile’s G1 smartphone, the first commercial device powered by Android, by one day. The G1 will go on sale Wednesday at T-Mobile retail stores. Under a special arrangement, T-Mobile downtown San Francisco store will have the G1 phones for sale on Tuesday night — 11 hours earlier than the rest of the country. Watch Wired.com’s Gadget Lab for coverage of the G1 launch.

The Android code was released largely under the Apache 2.0 open source license.

According to the Android website, Tuesday’s release “offers a full stack: an operating system, middleware, and key mobile applications. It also contains a rich set of APIs that allows third-party developers to develop great applications.” Among the features accessible via those APIs are the speech recognition engine, some software development tools and virtual libraries. There’s also embedded Linux (the system was built using the Linux kernel). Not to be confused with Android’s software development kit (SDK), the toolset used to build individual applications which was released earlier this year, Tuesday’s source code release offers the operating system code — the actual software which runs the applications.

While this is a major development for open-source mobile software, don’t get too excited about abandoning your current mobile OS just yet. The Android code is available to all takers, but the process of installing it on the market’s current crop of smartphone devices is still hit-or-miss. For those of us eager to install the operating system on our own phones, the burden of adapting Android’s OS to our phones is on us. Accommodating the hardware, from the camera to the keyboard (or lack of one), is entirely up to cell phone developers and developers — with Google’s support, of course. Google is openly courting developers to suggest and contribute new features.

For those without that level of commitment, you’re going to have to wait until someone else does it for you, which can mean months or years before you get a chance to run Android reliably on your phone. That is, unless you buy T-Mobile’s G1 phone or whatever device arrives next.

The implications of an open source mobile stack are endless. Android was designed from the beginning to run on a variety of mobile devices. It opens up the software for manipulation at the creative whim of any mobile software designer. From that point of view, the version you’ll find on the G1 device is basically the bare-bones version of the operating system. However, whatever future mobile OS utopia that’s signaled by this release will take some time to arrive.

Since Google’s code is being released under an Apache open source license, we can expect to see multiple branches of the bare-bones version. For example, branches will most likely pop up for each of the major cellphone providers. Similarly, Android’s openness grants Google an interesting competitive advantage against other mobile OS providers like Nokia, RIM and Apple. If history is any indicator, mobile software companies have found it difficult to match the speed at which the open source community develops and updates its software. If the developer army behind the open source community embraces Android’s code (and the mobile industry watches in wonder to see if it will), we’re likely to see new advancements within Android appear quickly, adding pressure to competitors to play catch-up. Nokia has already latched on to Google’s strategy by snatching up the Symbian operating system, which runs on most of its phones, and intending to release it under an open source license as well. By contrast, Apple and RIM, which makes the BlackBerry, argue the control they maintain over their software offers greater stability.

Android’s source code is available at source.android.com. Third-party application SDK’s are available at the developers site. For more information on Android on existing gadgetry, check out Gadget Lab’s coverage.

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