After Google released on Monday an initial set of details about its plans to alter how mobile applications are created and distributed, industry watchers are compiling a long list of follow-up questions about the Android platform and the Open Handset Alliance.
Digital Arts had a chance to talk to Rich Miner, a key member of Android's technical staff and a co-founder of the namesake company Google acquired in 2005, and ask him some of those questions.
During the brief phone chat, he said all members of the alliance have to agree to protect Android from technical fragmentation and explained why Google decided to launch its own mobile Linux effort when several others already exist.
Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
DA: Other mobile Linux initiatives exist on the market that are trying to accomplish a similar thing as Android. Won't Android compete with them and complicate those efforts?
Miner: When we looked at the other [mobile] Linux activities out there, oftentimes they're initiatives that are based on Linux but their resulting platforms aren't completely open. Or they're completely open and they're Linux, but they're missing most of the things that [Android has]. They probably don't have video codecs, Midi sequencer, speech recognition. So they're not a complete phone stack. The goal with Android was to build into it everything you needed to release a phone: an entire stack to build a competitive smartphone or high-end feature phone.
DA: The description you have given of Android's browser sounds exciting. Will it in fact replicate the PC browser experience on mobile devices?
Miner: Yes. It's based on the [open source] Webkit browser technology. That's the same browser that Apple ships with the iPhone and that's used in the Nokia Series 60 phones. So it's a full desktop browser, based on the same Webkit core Apple uses for their Safari browser, but highly optimized for our mobile environment. ... It'll be a great mobile Web experience.
DA: Speaking of the iPhone, any idea why Apple isn't among the Open Handset Alliance's partners? Are there any conversations going on between Google and Apple over this?
Miner: You'd have to ask Apple about Apple.
DA: Some people wonder whether the freedom to broadly modify Android might backfire in case people start building proprietary extensions and tweaks, or requiring them, so that you end up with developers back to square one, having to modify applications for every phone.
Miner: It's a good question but every member of the alliance has agreed to an antifragmentation clause. They've basically agreed not to fragment nor do things that would result in different versions of the platform. So we've built into the alliance mechanisms so that everyone agrees they won't support that kind of fragmentation.
DA: Is that a binding mandate that Google can in some way enforce, or is it more like an honor-system, good-faith commitment by members?
Miner: The most important thing is that everyone has agreed to the spirit of it because they realize that one of the big important things of this alliance is to build a vibrant third-party developer community. And they all agree that if they were to do things that would compromise the integrity of the platform, that would break third-party applications, and nobody wants to do that.
DA: When you talk about Android's operating system component, are we talking about a single OS or multiple OSes?
Miner: We refer to it as a platform because it's much more than an OS but it's based on Linux. It's a real complete stack. We've worked very hard all the way from the hardware up through all the software levels: the Linux OS, device drivers, all of the middleware, all the way up to the applications. It's a very highly optimized stack for mobile that's based on Linux.
DA: Google has said it will provide a lot of flexibility for how developers, handset makers and carriers will be able to use and adapt Android and its components. Can you swap out the OS piece and use a different Linux-based OS?
Miner: It's based on Linux, so it will be released supporting a particular release of Linux, but as long as there's Linux underneath the platform and our device drivers, you should be in good shape. It's not a set of applications that could run on top of Linux or Symbian or different OSes. The platform is based on Linux.
DA: And the Linux distribution will be called Android?
Miner: The handset distribution will be called Android and it's based on Linux but with a whole bunch of other components for things like optimized graphics for mobile phones, optimized database, speech recognition, video codecs. It's all of that other software that makes a handset optimized in a Linux environment we're delivering.