When Google conquered Internet search in the early 2000s, it was strictly a Web company and faced only Web competitors. Since then it has only rarely ventured out of the friendly confines of the Web world. The 2005 launch of its controversial “book search,” which enraged the New York publishing industry, shows what can happen when Google leaves its comfort zone. Now, with its recently announced plans to enter wireless communications, Google is making its deepest foray yet into a foreign territory where its allies are few. It faces the challenge of not just entering the wireless world but also converting its inhabitants. Provided that Google has the nerve and resources to try to remake wireless in its image, it’ll either prove its greatest triumph or its Waterloo.Let’s start with what, exactly, Google is doing. In Google’s words, its recently unveiled “Android” is the “first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices.” But it is a signal of much more. Google is as much an ideology as a firm and can resemble a nation-state in its pursuit of power rather than a mere corporation chasing quarterly numbers. Google and its allies are now trying to make the principles of openness—the commanding ideology of the Internet—the conquering principle of the wireless world, and the Android announcement is just the first step.
Android is, in form, another of Google’s giveaway strategies, a Linux-based operating system for mobile phones that comes with a free set of tools that should make it easy for any programmer to write applications for a mobile phone. It’s clear that any Android-based Gphone will be far more “open” than any cell phone the world has yet seen. That means any developer, anywhere, will be able to build whatever functions they think make sense for a mobile computer, and users will be able to install whatever they want. In comparison, today’s cell phones, smartphones, and the Apple iPhone are closed and controlled platforms. We have no idea what the killer apps for a Gphone might be, and that’s what makes Android truly revolutionary.
Who, if anyone, is threatened by Android? Since it is an operating system and Microsoft makes operating systems, some journalists have written about Microsoft as the company that Google is challenging. That’s a mistake. Yes, Google’s Android will supplement and may someday displace Microsoft or Symbian (another leading mobile OS). But neither Microsoft nor Symbian is the true obstacles to Google’s larger plans. They are rivals, yes, but neither Symbian nor Microsoft can stop Android or the development of Gphones.
Google’s truest and most formidable foes are much older and more powerful. Today we call them Verizon and AT&T, but their real name is the Bell system. Their ideology, which today governs the cell phone world, is called “Vailism,” and it can be traced back to 1907 and the origins of AT&T’s domination of American telephony. The Bells’ philosophy, as promulgated by AT&T’s greatest president, Theodore Vail, is based on closed systems, centralized power, and as much control as possible over every part of the network. Vailism is the antithesis, in short, of everything Google stands for. It is this—conquering the business culture of the telephone, as opposed to the computer—that is Google’s great challenge.
If that sounds abstract, we can make it more concrete. Over the coming years we can expect the Bell system to do everything in its power to destroy or subjugate Google. That’s what history suggests; for since 1894 or so, the Bell system has swallowed or eliminated almost all of its would-be rivals. As one historian writes, in the early 1900s Bell would bankrupt competitors, and then “in truly medieval fashion, pile the instruments in the street and burn them, as a horrible example for the future.”
As that suggests, bad things tend to happen to firms that challenge Bell. While actual burning of equipment is rarer these days, the Bells do still run the industry, in part, through terror. Almost every firm in the wireless world is, somehow, connected to AT&T or Verizon, and to defy them or even speak out is to risk retaliation. That’s why Google’s venture might be compared to trying to start a new waste management firm on Tony Soprano’s street.
What gives AT&T and Verizon real power over the wireless world? It is their control over spectrum, retail, and government, three areas where Google, as of now, is very weak, and where it must depend entirely on its allies. Spectrum is the one physically scarce resource in the wireless world, and those who control the airwaves have the power to call the shots by denying access to those who do not behave. That’s why so much turns on the loyalty of Google’s carrier partners, T-Mobile and Sprint, for they are serious players with spectrum. If, as is likely, AT&T and Verizon refuse to allow any Gphones on their networks, the reach of Android may be limited.
Nor is the problem of retailing Android phones trivial. Anyone with an Internet browser can use Google search or Gmail, but in the American mobile world the main barrier to market entry is reaching consumers. Today, more than 90 percent of Americans buy their wireless devices from their carriers. It is true, again, that Google has T-Mobile and Sprint provisionally on its side. But if only some outlets will sell a Gphone, fewer people will buy them.
Finally, the Bells are strong enough in Washington to try to use government as a tool against Google. The exact mechanisms can be hard for anyone but a seasoned telecommunications attorney to understand. But where there’s a lobbyist, there’s a way to make life difficult for a market entrant. Don’t be surprised if Google’s wireless division or Google itself begins to face new pressure from the FCC, antitrust authorities, or other sympathetic government bodies.
If these challenges sound daunting, they are. They explain why a once-radical company like Apple, when it launched the iPhone, bowed to the carriers instead of trying to fight them. But you’d also be crazy to underestimate Google and its incentives for waging this war. Unlike, say, book search, or some of Google’s other stalled ventures, conquering wireless may very well be do or die, if the long-term future does indeed lie in mobile computing. And to the extent that Google is already a part of the broader war between open and closed systems, attacking the wireless world gives Google and its allies a chance to go on the offensive. It means that Google can spend less energy defending the Web from the Bells and cable companies in the ongoing struggle for net neutrality.
What Google has on its side is lots of money, smart employees, and some important allies. But most important is its conviction that it is on the side of history. Google believes that the ideology of openness must win out, and that the Bell system will collapse under its own contradictions. For a firm, Google has an astonishing sense of its manifest destiny. As one Google executive told me recently, “We don’t do something unless we are convinced we will do it an order of magnitude better.”
That’s why it must be understood that Android is just an initial step. Next, Google or its partners must do whatever they must to get their hands on more spectrum to establish a beachhead of true openness in the wireless world. Provided Google continues to have the nerve and resources, we’ll likely remember the Android announcement as the beginning of a long, drawn-out battle for ideological supremacy in the world of wireless.
Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and co-author of Who Controls the Internet?