Android Momentum Rolls On As Vodafone Jumps Aboard

Looking at the list of the 14 new members that joined the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) this month, what struck me was the speed at which the OHA’s Android platform has gathered support since the launch of the T-Mobile G1 phone in October 2008. Although the OHA announced a wide range of members when it was created in November 2007, names on a press release don’t always equate to actual support.

Even before this month’s announcement, a stream of pledges from hardware manufacturers suggested that Android was on the cusp of announcing a major swathe of support from across the industry. It seems hard to believe that original design manufacturers like Asus, Huawei and Techfaith would sign up without a belief that more operators would put Android-powered hardware in their portfolios next year.

I have to admit, though, that Vodafone wasn’t at the top of my list of operators set to follow in the footsteps of T-Mobile. In the past Arun Sarin has complained about the number of new mobile platforms and been dismissive of Google’s efforts to build up a relationship with mobile users.

But Vodafone is changing. It’s certainly not the company it was three years ago, and it seems to be taking a more pragmatic approach to Android. There’s no doubt that Google’s move into mobile software represents a threat to Vodafone’s own service interests. And there’s a real risk that providing Google with direct access to information about its subscribers could put Vodafone on a direct course to what it fears most: becoming a “bit pipe” for other people’s services. Yet the reality is that Android offers a rich consumer experience on a wide range of devices from a growing band of manufacturers. It therefore fits nicely with the criteria for Vodafone’s Terminals Platform Programme.

More importantly, Android is available now. For me, that’s an important factor here. Vodafone remains committed to LiMo as a neutral, independent vehicle for its services but LiMo is still some way off being a full, complete platform. Similarly, Windows Mobile remains far from suitable for the average phone buyer and a unified Symbian platform isn’t likely to emerge before the end of 2009.

I’m intrigued by the terms of Vodafone’s agreement with Google. Like the operator’s commitment to the Ovi suite of services, I’m sure the deal has an element of “keeping your friends close but your enemies closer”. Vodafone will have ensured it keeps tight control of the Android experience on Vodafone devices. But there has to be a broader incentive for Vodafone — a share in Google’s advertising revenue being an obvious example. In other words, there has to be an incentive significant enough to outweigh concern about the impact on Vodafone’s services business in the long term.

Vodafone’s support opens the floodgates. As we saw with Ovi, endorsement from a major operator heavily focussed on its own service interests will trigger a flurry of agreements from other networks in 2009. Vodafone has effectively forced the hand of those operators sitting on the fence. The question they’ll be asking themselves now is not “How does this compete with our own business?” but “Can we afford to be without it?”